What if…Astana had been 0.023 seconds faster in the 2009 Tour de France TTT?

In this series, ‘What if?’, we have  a look at points in cycling history where a certain event or rider going slightly differently could have had an interesting impact on that race, or indeed the future of the sport. Cycling is packed with such moments, as are all sports, and this is the opportunity for some wild speculation on to what would have happened if such an event had occurred…

So for the first in this series, we look at the slightly under regarded 2009 Tour de France, featuring the decisive Lance Armstrong (to say the least) in his comeback Tour de France after four years out following his seven successive Tour triumphs. This Tour, like every tour from 1999-2010 it seems, it now deemed to be undeserving of attention, seeing as it featured the cycling hate figure, had a winner many now regard as suspicious thanks to his clenbuterol suspension the following year, and the fact it was a slow burn characterised more by the PR duel between Contador and Armstrong then  by the low number of summit finishes and over hyped penultimate ‘showdown’ stage to Mount Ventoux. Still, there are more then a few ‘what ifs’ that can be asked, and in particular, one that could have seen cycling history play out very differently…

The  Background

The 2009 Tour was a tour of returning legends. The mythical Mount Ventoux was returning after a nine year absence from the event. The triple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador, having just won the Tour, Giro and Vuelta in the space of 18 months, was making his comeback after being barred from the event in 2008 due to his being on the Astana team, who had been banned for the indiscretion of its 2007 team in Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin’s blood doping. And of course, there was the biggest comeback of them all – Lance Armstrong, the man who had made cycling into the global, media frenzy of a show that it was, the man who had already come back from cancer to win the race seven times, was coming back to make that number eight.

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Armstrong had found a fly in the ointment of that plan however – his obligations to sponsor Trek had essentially made it necessary for him to join the Astana team who were supplied/sponsored by the American manufacturer, which in one manner was good, as his old chum Johan Bruyneel was already there, as were a number of his key lieutenants in Levi Leipheimer, Benjamin Noval, Sergio Paulinhio and Yarsolav Popovych. Unfortunately, Alberto Contador, the man who had essentially become his Discovery Channel replacement, had also joined the team, and had just completed his rout of all three Grand Tours. Evidently this was a problem given Armstrong’s stated desire to win the Tour for an eight time – how to manage this when the best rider in the world was on the same team, and also wanted to win the Tour was an issue that no manager would really want to take on.

Contador was on a high thanks to wins at the 2007 Tour and 2008 Giro and Vuelta
Contador was on a high thanks to wins at the 2007 Tour and 2008 Giro and Vuelta

And so an odd PR war began in the months leading up to the race, as Astana began to try and find a way to accommodate all ego-heavy superstars. After all, men like Levi Leipheimer were now surely fed up of being pushed down the rankings. Leipheimer had joined Discovery Channel in 2007, having signed during the 2006 Tour, only for Discovery to then announce the signing of Ivan Basso to the team in November after he had been cleared for the first time of any involvement in Operacion Puerto. Basso did leave the team when the evidence for his involvement became indisputable, so Leipheimer was still leader for the 2007 Tour…until his teammate Contador beat him, albeit only just. The 2009 Grand Tours were thus divided up – Armstrong, it was said, would go to the Giro, Contador the Tour, and Leipheimer would try and get a clean sweep for the team at the Vuelta.

However the situation was fluid, and Armstrong was never really clear as to quite what his ambitions were, in public anyway. The new film The Armstrong Lie shows he was indeed driven for an eighth win, and he was probably helped that his crash out of the Vuelta Castilla y Leon turned his Giro into a training ride, where he still finished a creditable 12th (upgraded to 11th and then DQed of course). The stage was thus set for both him and Contador, who had won the Tours of the Algarve and the Basque Country already compared to Armstrong’s blank slate, to come together for a duel at the Tour.

What actually happened

The 2009 Tour started in a rather dull and cloudy Monaco (I know because I was there, desperate so see a certain childhood hero who had just come out of retirement…), and with Armstrong unable to reproduce his 1999 comeback style, where he won the opening prologue. Instead, Armstrong finished the lumpy 15.5km course  in 10th place, 40 seconds behind winner Fabian Cancellara but also 22 seconds behind the second place finisher – Alberto Contador. It seemed the Spaniard was the man on better form then, although that would all change two days later into La Grande-Motte.

Behind Cavendish, Armstrong gained time on Contador
Behind Cavendish, Armstrong gained time on Contador

After Mark Cavendish chalked up a win on the second day of the race, the Tour turned to the exposed plains of the South East of France, and left Marseille charging into the Mistral, the fiery wind that blasted the riders and added to the misery of the baking hot temperatures and parched tarmac. With about 30 kilometers to go, a bend in the road saw the Columbia-HTC team attack on masse, and pull the field into echelons. Ironically, the American team found it had picked up US cycling’s biggest star in the process, and had left Spain’s golden boy behind. Needless to say, Armstrong marshaled Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia, who were on his team, and George Hincapie, who wasn’t, into unleashing hell along the coast to ensure that Contador did not get back.

30 kilometres later, and after Mark Cavendish had dispatched Thor Hushovd with his telephone celebration to repay new sponsor HTC, the leadership situation at Astana was back in turmoil. Armstrong had gained 41 seconds on the peloton, placing him 3rd overall with Contador 19 seconds back in 4th. More intriguingly, there was a Team Time Trial the next day – traditionally the Armstrong team speciality, especially with Contador, Leipheimer, Kloden and Popovych to fire up the  team. They needed to claw back 40 seconds against Saxo Bank and Fabian Cancellara and 33 against HTC and Tony Martin, who had just knackered themselves doing a TTT anyway, to do what had seemed unthinkable – put Armstrong in the Yellow Jersey.

The What if – the TTT

The Montpelier TTT was abysmally designed for the riders, as expressed in the excellent Chasing Legends. An overly technical start led into an incredibly technical winding course, which caused several crashes and meant over half the teams lost more than 2 minutes to the winners. The Armstrong Lie shows how excited Armstrong was at the prospect of taking yellow, and that indeed was the story of the day.

Complete Name, event, location.

Neatly, the three big teams competing for the jersey were the last three to go off, as Saxo-Bank, Colombia and then Astana departed in that order. Colombia, it turned out, were exhausted by the previous days exertions, and finished 5th on the day, before Saxo Bank came charging in, led by the yellow clad Fabian Cancellara as he towed his team around the course, to set the second  best time after Garmin, completing the course in 47 minutes, 9 seconds. This meant that Astana would have to come in at 46 minutes, 28 seconds to overhaul the 40 second deficit to Cancellara…

What actually happened

With the time on the 5th man, Astana crossed the line with Haimar Zubeldia in 5th (Armstrong was 4th and Contador 3rd), recording a time of 46 minutes and…29 seconds. No one knew what this meant, as this essentially meant there was a dead heat between Armstrong and Cancellara, both locked on 10 hours, 38 minutes and seven seconds. So the rulebook was brought out to point out that as time trials are rounded to the nearest second, they would check the rounding to see who would gain the malliot jaune by whichever way the fractions of a second were deemed to fall.

And so, by a mere 0.022 seconds, the jersey went to Cancellara: ‘Time was born in Switzerland, so that was on my side!’ he exclaimed as he deflated the American dream. Armstrong had got a stage win, albeit as part of a team, but the real story, the yellow jersey had been missed by a minuscule margin.

This was as close as Armstrong came to taking the jersey.
This was as close as Armstrong came to taking the jersey.

From there, the Tour slowly slipped from Armstrong’s grasp. By stage seven, the riders had hit the Mountains of Andorra, and team mate Contador had attacked on the Arcalis climb to reclaim 21 seconds, although the yellow jersey had gone to Rinaldo Nocentini of Ag2R in the days break. ‘That wasn’t really the plan’ Armstrong quipped, as Contador claimed the race would decide the leadership. It sure did, as the Spaniard repeated the feat at Verbier to take the stage and yellow, before consolidating by beating Cancellara to a TT win and defending up the Ventoux. Armstrong hung on to his pocdium place by 37 seconds over Bradley Wiggins, and looked very glum on the podium, wistfully admiring Contador’s trophy.

What if…?

So what would have happened if Astana had sprinted to that line just that little bit faster? What if Zubeldia had finished level with Armstrong and brought the clock to 46:28 for those 39 kilometres? There’s no doubt we would have seen the biggest story the Tour had seen since 1999.  A 37 year old cancer survivor who won the hardest sporting event in the world seven times in a row returns four years after retirement to take the yellow jersey once more? An 84th day in the yellow jersey would have been world wide news, but it is the sporting implications of such a win that are more interesting to contemplate.

For instance, we have to ask the question if Armstrong would have repeated to usual tactics he employed when he took the jersey early in the race, which was traditionally to give it away to a break away for a while, before riding back into it in the mountains. The answer is probably not, as the yellow jersey is of course the ultimate show of authority, and nothing shouts ‘the Boss’ more than the sight of Armstrong in yellow. It thus seems predictable that Astana would have been put to the front to keep the breakaways in check up until the critical stage seven to Andorra Arcalis from Barcelona.

 

It is unlikely Contador's attack would have gone down well had Armstrong been in yellow.
It is unlikely Contador’s attack would have gone down well had Armstrong been in yellow.

This is where the yellow jersey would have made things interesting. We know that Bruyneel and Armstrong certainly did not plan on Contador’s attack on Arcalis to pull himself back into the lead in the battle between those two, and so presumably there would have been even more incentive for Contador to not attack if Armstrong had been in yellow. After all, attacking the yellow jersey when he was on your own team would be up there with the great betrayals of the sport – attacking your own leader was bad enough, but when he had the yellow jersey? It would have been career suicide for Contador at Astana, if it wasn’t already. The team was clearly already isolating him, as the tale of him being denied a car to the start of the Annecy TT suggests, but to have tried to regain time as he did at Arcalis would have seen uproar from outside the confines of Astana. Of course, if we presume Contador didn’t attack then, could we then have seen Armstrong lead over he mountains of Andora and keeping the yellow jersey until Verbier?

Would we have been treated to this sight once more?
Would we have been treated to this sight once more?

It would be hard to see why not. The actual yellow jersey, Nocentini, survived this long on what was a relatively untaxing course, and this was with only a six and eight second gap respectively over Contador and Armstrong. From here on though, it is difficult to see Armstrong being in a winning position. The Verbier stage was probably his undoing in the 2009 Tour, and certainly the one where he admitted the Tour was beyond him for the first time. The problem would have undoubtedly been the attacks from the Schlecks – of course normally, Armstrong would be able to count on his team mates to haul him back, but Contador could have probably played the ‘just marking adversaries’ card and followed the Schlecks  even if Armstrong was in yellow. Of course, the famed ‘power of the yellow jersey’ may also have helped inspire Armstrong to finish strong, but his 2009 form never suggested it would allow him to dance away from his opponents in the manner of old, rather just to follow wheels…

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Which would bring the race down to the Annecy TT. Here, Armstrong lost 89 seconds to Contador (and seemed to know he would, making the announcement of his Radioshack team for 2010 the same day to deflect attention from Contador) , which we could maybe limit to a minute if Armstrong was in full on yellow jersey inspired mould. However, assuming he had miraculously not lost any time at Verbier, which is unlikely, this would still put him 30-40 seconds behind Contador, who would undoubtedly be in the yellow jersey with his favoured Ventoux terrain to come. Even if by some miracle Armstrong preserved his slender lead, the Ventoux stage would have been an absolute pressure cooker of tension. Whilst in 2009 the big question was simply if Armstrong could stay on the podium, the list of the possibilities that could have emerged if only Lance had taken yellow in Montpellier look a lot larger:

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– Astana could have completely disintegrated between their two leaders as both simply went all out to win on the famous mountain.
– Contador could have seen the value in aiding a global legend to the victory in the knowledge that he wouldnt be on the same team the next year.
– Pressure from men like Wiggins and Schleck may have seen the team forced to abandon the bias for Armstrong in favour of the win with Contador.

Ventoux, like many other times, would probably have become the nemesis of Armstrong once more.
Ventoux, like many other times, would probably have become the nemesis of Armstrong once more.

Certainly, the likelyhood of Armstrong making any further steps up the podium he occupied the third step of looks unlikely. In all probability, Contador would still have triumphed over his American foe, albeit perhaps not quite by the same margin. However, the complexion of the 2009 Tour, and the intensity of that fully fuelled grudge match of hatred between the two men, could have played out so much differently if only the team had rolled in just that little bit faster into Montpellier….

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