As his riders made final preparations for the Tour de France, the Astana team manager, Johan Bruyneel, faced a tough choice. Which of his two top riders — Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador — would wear the team leader’s jersey when the race began?
“Just to avoid any problems, I thought about doing it alphabetically,” Bruyneel said at a news conference on Friday. “But then Lance would wear it.”
In the end, Bruyneel gave the coveted jersey, bearing the No. 21, to Contador, the rider with the most recent success.
Beyond the symbolism of the jersey choice, however, lies a deeper challenge for this team. Cycling demands support riders, each assigned to specific roles, to toil in service of the leader. In Astana’s case, that means either working for Armstrong, the seven-time Tour champion and the cancer survivor whose fame transcends the sport, or for Contador, the powerful young Spaniard in his prime who has won each of cycling’s three Grand Tours.
How Astana navigates this tricky territory is likely to attract considerable attention during this year’s Tour, which opened yesterday. Anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 fans are expected to flood into this city on the Riviera to watch the first matchup between Armstrong, 37, and Contador, 26.
For now, at least, the jersey is Contador’s to lose.
“When we made selection of the team, we made it clear that the leader is Alberto,” Bruyneel said, “simply because of the fact that his last three big tours, he has won them all.”
For at least the first stage, Contador is the leader of Astana because of his recent success and because Armstrong is in his first season after emerging last fall from more than three years of retirement.
“If Alberto is better,” Armstrong said earlier this week, “I will ride for him.”
Although Bruyneel helped Armstrong win the Tour seven times, he said that he had since built a strong relationship with Contador, especially during the up-and-down season last year.
Through an interpreter, Contador also said his relationship with Bruyneel was solid and that he had confidence in him. Having Armstrong in the race will push him to go faster, Contador said.
“Everyone expected him to be ready for the Tour,” he said in Spanish. “So that gives me extra motivation. I like the pressure.”
Other teams are curious to see Astana’s race-within-a-race play out on the roads. Some riders envision Armstrong as the leader because of his experience at winning this grueling race.
Some directors, like Bjarne Riis of Saxo Bank, favor Contador because of his youth.
“I can’t imagine a team like that would have big fights and conflicts, to be honest,” Riis said. “Otherwise, they’d have management problems. They should have one leader, and that should be Contador. I can’t imagine they would have other plans. If it is, it would be funny to watch.”
One of Riis’ riders, Jens Voigt of Germany, said there would naturally be tension between Armstrong and Contador and that the competition would not necessarily remain friendly.
“The biggest drama of sport is when one guy is suffering, and the other guy sees it as the perfect time to attack,” Voigt said. “What are you going to say, ‘Oh look at that poor guy, I’m going to take it easy on him and be nice to him?’ No, you hit him when he’s down. In cycling, you attack.”