Armstrong Back, Landis Back..Now You’re Talking!

If you’re reading this, you’re really into cycling. You probably go out of your way to keep up about the sport at all levels. You can recognize the names of many of today’s top pros and their teams, and you probably attend professional cycle races from time to time. You might even race yourself, even if at an amateur level.

So with a proper cycling c.v. such as this, it’s safe to say you want the sport to keep getting bigger and better, especially here in the States, where it has climbed up to 7th in terms of participation sports, putting it above golf, for example, but still below “recreational walking.”

But you know also that the sport has struggled of late, and its reputation has been tarnished in recent years with all the drugging hijinks.

For the last couple of years, it has seemed like mentioning you were a cyclist or a fan of the sport brought automatic questions only about doping, and maybe about how people in cars hate that you darken their roads. Certainly there were fewer opportunities to discuss the positive aspects of the sport.

Over the past three years, our sport – and especially U.S. enthusiasm for it – have experienced two particularly big setbacks with Lance’s retirement, and with Floyd’s positive drug test at the 2006 Tour.

Lance’s retirement was long anticipated and well-timed on his part, leaving no hard feelings, but with it we lost our sport’s homegrown worldwide rock star. In the Landis case, and “case” being the operative word here, we were forced to weather the embarrassment of having an heir-apparent Tour champ from America test positive for doping, and then test positive for stupidity for how he handled the doping allegations (“musta been the Whiskey” — brilliant!).

Lance’s departure certainly created a vacuum, and then Landis’ situation pricked the bubble of goodwill we’d been enjoying in our beloved sport.

The good news, was that the sport continued to move forward, even here in the states.

Today, we have more major US stage races today than when Lance retired. We also have more local races and more amateur cycling enthusiasts and competitors.

We also have more US-based top pro teams capable to compete worldwide. Before, we had only whatever team Lance was on. Today we have Team Columbia and Team Garmin-Chipotle, and surely we’ll repatriate Astana once Lance brightens that team’s doorstep.

That leads us to the best wager in sports betting today: That Astana jersey sales are about to skyrocket! In the past year we haven’t seen anyone sporting one while riding about — but now we’re counting the days till we do.

Wisely, we’re not buying yet. See, when Lance signs on, Astana’s jerseys are likely to gain eager new sponsors, such that the new ones will probably look as if they were decorated by Nascar. And that’s when we’ll be dropping a C-note for one.

Second best wager in sports betting today: Hincapie Sportswear will be assembling those kits.

The most interesting shop-talk topic in the near future, will be how Lance and Johan and Alberto arrange Astana’s Tour team in 2009.

Let’s start with some background points:

– Having read Johan’s new book (which is slim enough to fit in a pants pocket and barely long enough to carry one through a domestic plane-ride), he makes it clear that he and Lance have been and are best friends, and absolutely as close as brothers.

That being the case, we find it a real stretch of the imagination that Lance started the process six months ago to get his out-of-competition drug testing program reinstated (necessary if one wants to return to racing pro-level), but never chatted with his “brother” about what he was thinking about doing. Look for a slightly different spin on this story whenever Lance or Johan puts out their next book.

– The Johan pocket-book also described, with good logic, how Lance’s team was always constructed with one purpose: Lance wins the Tour.

That being said, will Lance and Johan ask/tell Alberto Contador – Astana’s only winner of the Tour de France, Tour of Italy, and (likely) Tour of Spain – to fetch bottles and maybe accept a top-50 finish to support the grizzled Armstrong?

Answer: Unthinkable.

So how might it work on Astana?

If one takes a page out of CSC’s very successful playbook for the 2008 Tour, Astana could genuinely put forth two supported riders for the Tour.

In the past, one critical weak-link for any team that Johan/Lance ran was their absolute single-threadedness to Lance.

If he’d gotten sick, or crashed, or simply failed to perform well on any particular day, there would have been no hope for someone else on the team to credibly compete for the top podium spot.

Sure, they had, at different times, strong riders like Landis and Hincapie and Hamilton and Heras — any of which could have offered this potential, but by making them ride full out for Lance, they generally weren’t positioned to finish high up in the General Classification (overall results).

To their great fortune, Lance escaped any such blow-ups, or was able to minimize their damage, and managed to pull off the win seven times in a row.

But would Astana adopt a similar strategy with a thirty-seven year old rider, especially when it has a stable of strong contenders in-house already? We think not.

Going to the front of the pack in terms of offering early prognostications, ours is that Astana will put both Lance and Alberto up front for the Tour, surrounded by guys like Leipheimer and Kloden and Noval and on and on. If either leader has a bad day, the other will be there to keep the team’s chances intact.

Again, this was a greatly successful approach for CSC this year, which put both Carlos Sastre and Frank Schleck forth as supported riders, and then let their respective performances determine the outcome.

With so many great climbers on the scene now (Contador, Andy Schleck, Vandevelde, Sastre, etc.), and the possibility of seeing the return to the Tour of names like Landis, Leipheimer, Basso, etc., every Tour team needs fire-power in the mountains, and the ability to pursue multiple tactics on a stage.

The way that CSC picked apart Cadel Evans in this year’s Tour was clear proof that a great man still cannot win the Tour poorly unsupported, and that a team that employs a tactic of multiple leaders actually has a stronger overall team than one which has only one possible winning combination.

Some further fascinating shop-talk topics to keep our jaws exercised through the winter, are:

– Whether Lance’s ego will accept a co-leader arrangement, or will it be back to “my-way-or-the-highway” to Alberto Contador?

– Whether Alberto can attack hard enough to gain sufficient time in the mountains, that Lance cannot make up that time in the individual time trial?

– Whether Lance will be able to time trial as strongly as he did in the past? Or to climb with the best climbers, as he has in the past?

One final point, and one that might have come into Lance’s mind as he contemplated a possible return to competition, is that more comprehensive dope testing seems to have slowed things down at the Tour. We all saw Sastre’s great breakaway in this year’s tour on the Alpe d’Huez. Was it a dominating performance? Hardly. He beat a tired Cadel Evans while riding a pace two minutes slower than others had topped it in the past — including hizzownself, Lance. So, if everybody (or almost everybody) is racing clean these days, and therefore racing slower — maybe Lance won’t find competing so difficult, despite arguable disadvantages in the areas of age and conditioning.

Our final prognostication on this matter: ASTANA WINS THE 2009 TOUR. Unfortunately, a dollar bet on this pick will probably return substantially less than a buck.

As to Floyd Landis…

So apparently he’s coming back to team Healthnet-Maxxis, which will be called something else by the time he arrives. The team apparently has a new title-sponsor but has yet to unwrap the name for us. Rumors are that it is the company that built Floyd’s artificial hip. Whatever.

The main curiosity, perhaps, will be whether this team remains a domestic Pro team, racing primarily in U.S. events (ala Tyler Hamilton with Rock Racing), or whether they will use Landis as the launchpad to compete in major European races.

To gain an early view as to how this might play out, we’ll watch carefully which riders announce in coming weeks and months that they’re signing on with the team temporarily known as Healthnet-Maxxis.

It’s safe to say his return will not have the repercussions for the sport that Lance’s return will have. It has more of a return-of-Tyler Hamilton feel to it. The sport will have back another of its black-hats, but one we can’t help but like. He’s done his time, so we can quit debating whether he did the crime. We wish him all the best luck back in the peloton.

To the extent you agree or disagree with any of this, please leave us your comments below!

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