Various members of the media may be talking about second-year professional Richie Porte filling Alberto Contador’s shoes, should he be found guilty. But Anthony Tan discovers it’s quite clear that within Saxo Bank, they’re still counting — or at least hoping — on continuing with Plan A: A team with the Spanish grand tour champion headlining the team at the 2011 Tour de France.
Richie Porte’s failed breakaway attempt on the third stage of the Tour Down Under and his Saxo Bank team manager Bradley McGee’s harsh reaction Thursday may be symptomatic of just how much the former number-one team in world cycling need Alberto Contador as their bona-fide Tour de France contender.
A late attack four kilometers from the finish line in Stirling wasn’t part of the original plan, McGee told AFP, where Porte later admitted: “I thought I’d have a little more in the tank than I did, but I (blew up). I went from too far” — the end result seeing him lose 46 seconds and falling out of contention for overall victory.
VeloNews came across a typically stoic team boss Bjarne Riis in the Adelaide suburb of Norwood before stage 4 of the TDU. When asked if can see Contador racing this year, Riis said: “That’s a question I can’t answer.”
What he has told his team?
“Well … I told them the facts, you know … I think the only thing we can deal with is the facts,” Riis said.
Is Porte ready to step into a leadership role?
“Let’s wait and see… I mean, the season has barely started yet, so… There’s still some decisions to be made.”
VeloNews then asked McGee: How hard was it to plan your season not knowing whether your chosen leader is going to race or not?
“I wouldn’t say difficult — it was a challenge,” he said.
“But it actually made things a little bit sharper, you know. Like always, you’ve got to have a great plan, but you’ve got to be quite flexible as well. So we’ve got different case scenarios and ‘what if’ scenarios and we’re more ready than ever given the current environment, so it’s actually strengthened our structure.”
Sunderland: “Must assume Contador will race” — but still have Plan B
Former sport director Scott Sunderland, who worked on the team from 2004-08, told VeloNews Riis “just has to assume Contador will be racing, and (that Contador) will be doing the whole year.”
“And you need to continue with that — until it’s any different,” said Sunderland.
“Obviously, in the back of his mind — (and) not just in the back of his mind but whole management — (Riis) would be looking at Plan B: (riding) without Contador.
“I don’t think they’d share that and make all the other riders aware of that at this point, because otherwise it becomes too much for the other riders to think about, and it gets mixed; it gets muddled. So, I think at this point, they just clearly keep it on one thing — Plan A with Contador — and continue down that road till further notice. That’s the only way.
“Otherwise you don’t have that clarity and you don’t have the commitment that you need to continue from the start. If you don’t have that clarity, you may suffer not having that commitment (from the riders) in the early season. That’s very important,” Sunderland said.
Porte “not losing over it”
VeloNews also asked Porte himself, the Tasmanian revelation of the 2010 season who finished a stunning seventh overall in his first Giro d’Italia — as a neo-pro, no less — just how he’s feeling, not knowing whether he’ll be a lieutenant, co-leader or outright leader this year.
“It’s not difficult at all — for me,” he said. “I’m a second-year professional in one of the biggest teams, and never really expected to be a leader just yet, so … I mean, there’s no stress for me. I don’t lose sleep over it, but …”
Porte said because of the difficulty of this year’s Giro parcours and other professionals’ experiences at trying to tackle both the Giro and Tour de France, he’ll be doing the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse instead. “I like my race program, and I think that’s going to set me up pretty well to have a good Tour.
“But we’ll change the program if I am tired or whatever. It’s pretty free and open to change,” said Porte.
Has he heard the news that the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) may deliver a verdict by mid-February?
“Me, I haven’t seen that — I haven’t been on the tabloids,” Porte said, laughing nervously. “But I’d love to ride with Alberto … I really hope that’s what happens, because he’s a great guy, he’s a great leader.”
VeloNews then asked Riis if he believes other riders need to step up, so Porte is not the only leader, should Contador not race.
“I mean, it’s up to everybody to step up if needed to — I think it’s part of the game for everybody to take responsibility, and I think they will. And then it’s our job to help them do it,” he said.
Panic stations or not?
Asked if it was panic stations at Saxo Bank when not just the Schlecks, but Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady and Jakob Fulgsang, among several others, choose to leave, McGee said: “Absolutely not.”
“It wasn’t a disastrous effect like some people would believe, I can tell ya,” said McGee, who admitted not being “part of the conversation” when the Schlecks chose to leave for Leopard-Trek.
Sunderland has a different perspective.
“From an emotional point of view, they would’ve more or less felt they’d been kicked in the guts,” he said.
“Working so hard and being so dedicated and building the number-one team — they’d been the number-one team for so many years; the time I was with them, they were the number one team every year,” said Sunderland. “And (when I left) they continued with fantastic results, they were always pushing the boundaries of everything. If you were looking for a team with (good) teamwork, they were an exemplary team.”
Added McGee: “For me, personally, the news was coming out pretty much just (as) the average punter was receiving it. There were a lot of rumors floating around and everything but like anything, I don’t really give it too much thought professionally until it’s a reality. And that was later on and by the time the news was a reality it was like, ‘OK, these things happen, let’s look forward to the future without the Schlecks.’ Life goes on.”
Surely, though, it must have been hard to recruit so many good riders to support Contador and Porte’s grand tour aspirations?
“You’ve got to look at it at two angles,” McGee said.
“You’ve got to always be constantly supporting the troops, bringing in strong riders, and (secondly), also developing from within; that’s probably the number-one target for the team. It’s our duty constantly to support that, and boost them up to their maximum potential.”
What does he make of Contador’s explanation for the Clenbuterol found in his urine?
“Mate, I couldn’t comment on that because I wouldn’t know what to believe with what’s been written in the media. And I haven’t spoken to him personally about it.”
In his heart, does McGee see Contador racing or not?
“Again, I can’t comment. That’s completely out of my control. All I am is ready (for) the day that he’s back on the bike; he’ll be part of the team and we’ll be racing full-gas.”
Why the exodus?
Sunderland has an explanation for the Saxo Bank exodus that was precipitated by the Schleck brothers’ departure, which reached boiling point when Andy Schleck and O’Grady were thrown off the Vuelta a España after being caught drinking.
“Over the years there’s been a close bond (in the team) and that’s where the success of Bjarne’s teams has come from. The riders become very much good friends; not just teammates in the sense that we all get paid by the same guy and we ride together in races. So once you get those bonds there always is that type of risk that if one goes or two go, a few more may go with them.
“So for him on the emotional side, he would’ve felt like he’d been kicked in the guts. And then afterwards he would have been like, ‘OK, this is what I don’t have, this is what I do have — what do we need to move forward?’ And I think that’s where Bjarne is a good manager – he’d assess things as quick as possible. Then there’s nothing more you can do; you just get on with it,” he said.
Given O’Grady told VeloNews this week (see video) he’s patched things up with Riis, does the Team Saxo Bank boss feel less aggrieved about what happened at the Vuelta and the revolving door that seemed not to stop till September 18, when Cancellara finally announced his inevitable departure?
“Listen … I don’t need to go into this,” he said through clenched teeth.
Sunderland said he feels for the sponsor — who was initially going to leave the sport at the end of last year — as much, if not more, than the team: “If this had been dealt with last year while he was still with Astana, it only had to do with Astana — Contador and Astana. Now, what you’re seeing is Contador and Saxo Bank. OK, he’s not part of (the team) because it’s an ongoing investigation but people are already making the link he’s with Saxo Bank.”
When Plan A becomes Plan B
Asked if Porte is ready to handle an outright leadership role should Contador be found guilty, McGee believes — or at least says — the two are not related.
“Richie’s on his own development path, and the Alberto case has really not got much to do with that at all. Just they will be teammates, and like all teammates, they’ve got to work off each other, so … Richie’s got a lot of development in front of him. He’s developing fast, it’s beautiful to see, and we hope it continues.
“Let’s not get carried away (about Porte),” cautions McGee.
“Remember, Richie’s a second-year pro. We talk a lot about the future and where we’re going, but I wouldn’t like to put any extra pressure on him at this stage because we got a little plan for this year, a longer-term view.”
n fact, Porte told VeloNews it will be week-long races such as April’s Tour de Romandie where “I’m going to cut my teeth.”
“Like, why not go there and have a really good shot at GC?” asks Porte.
Rather than put too much pressure on yourself to try and do a top 10 or 15 at the Tour this year, you mean?
“That’s it, you know, I’ve got time. Thing is, I’ve got time on my side,” said the soon-to-be 26 year-old, who’ll celebrate that milestone on January 30.
Said Sunderland: “I think in the ideal world, it’s better he’s not in that (leadership) position, mainly because having a rider like Contador, being in that role to support (him), he’d learn far more. But, in saying that, some champions have been forced to take on that challenge and done it very successfully.
“Look at Richie last year — he just sort of fell into that role at the Giro. He did it very, very well and if this decision with Contador is made early enough … It’s up to Bjarne and management to say, ‘Look Richie, we’re going to do this at the Tour’ — then you will see how far he can go. I’m sure they’re going to approach it in the right way, and not sacrifice or destroy Richie in his first Tour de France attempt.
“He’ll learn a hell of a lot from it, so the fortunate thing is, he can approach the Tour without any great expectation except for being there and being part of it, and doing what you can in your first Tour.
Riis can rebuild, but …
So, hypothetically speaking — working off Plan B, as Sunderland calls it — Riis can rebuild a great team?
“I think so. Bjarne’s philosophy and values are still very strong. He’s been through a hell of a lot — he’s made mistakes in his career and his life, but he’s worked very hard to redeem himself and rectify that. Through experience, you improve.
“At the end of the day, if you can secure a substantial budget to be able to have a good bunch of riders and good staff, ” said Sunderland, “then anything is possible. It’s not just having that money and saying, ‘We’re going to be successful’ — it’s managing it.
And Bjarne’s proven he’s got a great track record — look at the riders that have been in the team and the success we had… I can’t see why he can’t do that again.”
Still, when asked what are the team’s major goals for the 2011 season, Riis said: “I think the goals are pretty much the same. It’s the same races we do … I hope we can go for the Tour with Alberto.”
So does all of Saxo Bank, it seems.
Editor’s note: Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 to pursue something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and a season racing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned. … More than 10 Grand Tours and countless classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006.