Stability of Armstrong's Astana team on trial

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Lance Armstrong's most fervent supporters and those who love to hate him were in full agreement on one point before the start of the Tour de France.

The consensus: That the uneasy balance of power within the Astana team that has cast Armstrong in a supporting role simply could not last.

The detractors claim Armstrong is too arrogant to play second fiddle to anyone. His fans insist he is simply too determined and talented to have his ability constricted by playing nursemaid to teammate and Tour favorite Alberto Contador.

Both camps, with their polar reasoning for the same outcome, could still be proven correct. Yet Saturday's opening time trial stage in the moneyed principality of Monaco ended with the seven-time Tour winner further removed from his team's leadership than ever before.

The biggest signal of intent came from Contador himself, with the explosive Spaniard roaring to an impressive second-place finish behind time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellera of Switzerland and Team Saxo Bank.

Cancellara, while a world and Olympic champion time-trialler and a magnificent exponent of stages such as this, is not looking to compete for overall honors. It was, therefore, as good a result as Contador could have hoped for.

Armstrong was far from sluggish, especially given his long sabbatical after last winning the title in 2005. He posted the fastest time in the early stages before being overhauled by nine other men, 40 seconds behind Cancellara.

Critically though, there were three Astana colleagues among those who bested him – Contador, Andreas Kloeden and Levi Leipheimer.

The only scenario that could see Armstrong win the Tour would require not only a mishap for Contador, but also that the Texan be considered the strongest contender in the Astana camp at that point, so he could assume leadership and have the squad's efforts behind him.

Many had predicted Armstrong would look to flex his muscles early in the race, especially during this stage, in order to put pressure on Contador and spark the sense that he would be a better choice as the No. 1 man. On Day 1 at least, it didn't happen.

Perhaps more worrisome for Armstrong backers, however, were a series of off-road developments that suggest there are other elements working against the 37-year-old.

There are serious disagreements between Astana's team management and the sponsorship consortium that backs it and they don't look to clear quickly.

Most Tour de France teams are financed by big companies, including banks, insurance firms and flooring companies, among others.

Astana is different, in that it is effectively owned by a nation, the oil-rich former Soviet state of Kazakhstan.

Surreally, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who most Americans will only have heard of if they saw the film "Borat," has thrust himself into the middle of a brewing conflict surrounding the team.

To make a long story short, Nazarbayev is desperate for Alexandre Vinokourov, Kazakhstan's most successful and famous cyclist, to return to the saddle in Astana colors for next year's Tour.

However, Astana team manager and longtime Armstrong ally Johan Bruyneel, has publicly stated that Vinokourov would not be welcomed back as he won't complete a ban being served as punishment for an illegal blood transfusion until July 24.

An unwritten agreement between leading teams and the international governing body asks that riders found guilty of doping not be selected for major races until at least two years after their official ban expires.

Nazarbayev at first liked the idea of having cycling's biggest name, Armstrong, on his team for 2009. But Bruyneel's public reluctance to have Vinokourov back next year and doubts over whether Armstrong will happily play the team game for Contador appear to have given the politician second thoughts.

"We are going to approach Alberto Contador and propose lengthening his contract," said Nazarbayev.

"He will be our sole leader for the years to come, he will have every liberty to choose the riders that he wants to have at his side.

"In our mind, the team will be made up of Spanish and Kazakh riders, amongst those Alexandre Vinokourov".

There have already been internal problems which led Armstrong and Bruyneel to consider setting up their own team after payments promised by Astana hierarchy were not made for the Giro d'Italia race.

None of this swirling drama seemed to weigh especially heavily on Armstrong's mind, as he looked relaxed and chipper before and after the opening stage.

He was greeted by a positive reception from the crowd, though it must be remembered that this was a Monaco public, therefore not strictly French.

Even so, sentiment towards Armstrong seems to be thawing in the home of the Tour and many cycling fans believe another victory for the legend would be in the best interests of a troubled sport.

Their wish, thanks to an excitable president, a brilliant Spaniard, an exiled doping cheat and the political workings of a complicated sport, is on shaky ground.

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