Ah, what a Tour de France it was...but if you want more on the past, check out the article I wrote a few weeks ago.
This piece is about the future of pro cycling. We are mere moments away from the dawn of a new day in the sport, after all, and the rising sun will reveal a radically new landscape.
Some might say that rays of light are already striking the ground about to be broken. Allow me to illuminate further by prognosticating the future of three key riders and how they will affect those around them:
Lance and Team Radio Shack
Quick recap in case you've been asleep for the past three weeks: Shortly before the end of the Tour, Lance Armstrong announced that he has convinced Radio Shack to sponsor a brand-new U.S.-based Pro Tour team for next year. Big stuff, especially considering the two strong American teams already in place, Columbia-HTC and Garmin-Slipstream.
Obviously, this move will have huge ramifications throughout the cycling world. Armstrong has already stated that the crew is almost entirely composed of former USPS and Discovery team employees, so in many ways the squad will resemble those former powerhouses. The question is: Just how similar will it be?
It has yet to be formally confirmed, but in all likelihood Lance will bring with him to Team Radio Shack current Astana teammates Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and Yaroslav Popovych, and, most importantly, current Astana coach Johan Bruyneel. With that group, the table is already set for a pretty solid group, but...
I'm willing to bet Lance can rope in a young GC contender, perhaps even a Schleck. The money is there, the star power is there, and a strong supporting cast will definitely be in place.
So will it be young Andy, older brother Frank, or both? In my opinion, it's more likely Radio Shack will nab someone who has some experience with Lance, like yet another current Astana teammate, Andreas Kloden.
No matter who the team gets, Radio Shack will be a new force in cycling. Much like adding another celestial body to a solar system, this squad will have a huge impact on all others with its "gravitational" (read: monetary) pull and "orbit" (that'd be its performance in races).
I'll mention one last thing before we move on: There's still a slim chance Bruyneel does not follow Lance to the States. Note that Johan has his own Luxembourg-based team, Olympus SARL, which actually holds the Astana contracts and equipment leases; it's unlikely that Bruyneel would get a license for Olympus and create yet another team, but one never knows.
"El Pistolero" Has Gun, Will Travel
The way in which Alberto Contador attacked and responded to attacks in the mountain stages of this year's Tour has me convinced: He is easily the best climber since the late Marco Pantani.
And though I can't speak with perspective on the entire history of cycling, I think it's safe to say he's up there in the top three of all time.
The way the man "dances on the pedals" is positively inhuman. How can that frame generate so much power? As he's proven, he's not too shabby of a time trialist either. I could go on and on...
But the point is this: Any team would kill to have Contador as their leader. Good news for the big spenders is that he's very much going to be available at the end of this season; his agent has already made it very clear that Berto wants out of Astana.
Who wouldn't? In my opinion, far too much was made of the "conflict" between Armstrong and Contador during this year's biggest race, but it has been clear since Lance stated that he was coming out of retirement that the two were not going to coexist for long.
You can believe whichever reporters you want to believe and take quotes from this year's winner and third-place finisher however you like. The issue of Alberto and Lance as, ahem, "partners" is not what I'm concerned with here.
What I want to know is where Contador will go once he escapes the crumbling Astana, and how he will perform with a new coach and a different supporting cast. It's pretty clear his lieutenants Sergio Paulinho and Benjamin Noval will follow where his captain goes, and probably some other Astana guys will tag along, but their destination and fate is unknown.
Bob Rolle made a vague hint during Versus' Tour coverage that Spanish team Caisse d'Epargne was the most likely team for Alberto to sign with, and I'll believe him, as I can admit that my knowledge of the market of cycling is not what it needs to be to argue with the great Bobke. But this suggestion only makes me hungry for more answers.
Who will be there to coach him? Is there a chance he'd join another major player, perhaps Saxo Bank to ride with the Schlecks? How will he fare when Lance, Levi, and Kloden are not his "friends," but his enemies?
I can say he's going to be a force no matter what, but let's just say it'll be interesting to see how he does with a team unequivocally all his own.
Alexandre Vinokourov and the Avalanche That's Team Astana
You may have surmised this from the past two sections and what you've heard in the news surrounding Kazakhstan's national team, but if you'd like to be told: Astana in its current form is finished.
Money problems aside, they're going to lose almost all of their major players and their top-of-the-line coach.
They might manage to survive on the strength of the one great rider remaining on their squad, who has already declared himself the new team leader (and that's on a team that technically still has Armstrong, Contador, Leipheimer, and Kloden), except for the fact that...
That man is Alexandre Vinokourov. A great rider, no doubt, but also almost certainly a doper, and a man already (before he's even raced for him) very much at odds with Coach Bruyneel.
It'd be easiest to put it this way: When he returned from his two-year suspension a few short weeks ago, there was no "Welcome Back" party. Contador and Armstrong were already at odds with each other, so basically neither has any room in their mind for yet another big ego.
And more importantly, Vino and Bruyneel had both already said they were not going to work together.
Vinokourov once said the Team Astana was "created for me, and thanks to my efforts." That makes sense on the level that Vino is Kazakh, but more cynically, it makes sense on the level that Vino has about as much of a chance of coming back and being a team leader as Astana does of existing next year.
Alexandre, much like his nation's team, seems stranded on a desert island with no one coming to save him. Not to paint him as evil, as he is a terrific athlete, but seemingly that's just what happens when you test positive these days in cycling.