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Tour de France: Anatomy of a Patron

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Starting tomorrow, Saxo Bank's Alberto Contador opens his account at the 2011 Tour de France, with an eye toward becoming the first rider to do the Giro d'Italia/Tour de France double since Marco Pantani in 1998, a feat that would put him on a short, rather illustrious list of dual winners. More illustrious than Pantani. Contador would also bag his fourth Tour win, one away from another exclusive club, which until 2004 represented the absolute pinnacle of cycling. At age 28, he would be considered a young quintuple winner, even by past standards where you were thought to be washed up by 30 or so.

So is it time to start calling Contador Le Patron?

First, a little definitional exercise... what is a patron? I'll take a shot at this, but as usual I expect some help filling in the blanks. One thing a patron is not: a guy who wins a lot. Or, what I mean is, he's not merely a winner. Winning a lot, specifically winning the maillot jaune multiple times, is merely the initial requirement. Sort of like having some cash before you can qualify for a mortgage. Wait, bad example...

Becoming Le Patron requires a rider to take on such a stature that he has some level of dictatorial control over the race. Not just his team, but other teams too. And by dictatorial I mean, oh, maybe not quite Stalin-esque, there may be room for benevolent dictatorship, but usually we're talking raw power, exerted enough to dissuade many more challenges. In Slaying the Badger, Richard Moore's new book on Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, which I am devouring like caviar, slowly and deliciously, Hinault speaks of his dictatorial style. If he wanted something done -- namely, a slow pace on a day when the top guys wanted to save their energy -- and someone defied him, he would get on the front and rip everyone's legs off. Because he could do this, Hinault was regarded as a patron, and in many eyes he was the last.

So, dictatorial control. Over a bunch of guys who don't work for you, and whose job it is to bury you if possible. Hinault's supernatural gift for out-suffering people gave him some measure of control. Being unquestionably better than others is a big part of patron-hood: until they so fear you that they'll go out of their way not to upset you, you aren't the patron. This brings up another element, the psychological edge. Hinault was very blunt, and quick to snuff out anyone who crossed him. So was Miguel Indurain a patron then? The Mig Era is a blank for me, but my sense is that he was a nice guy, and didn't really act the part of the dictator. He was too at peace, too secure. If anything defines dictators, it's insecurity. Anquetil, of whom I know little, may not have been insecure, but he did have an edge to him. For patron-hood, that'll do, I suspect.

The next factor I think has to do with respect inside the peloton. Lance Armstrong used his team to demolish opponents, and he himself targeted the trolls among the peloton at times. Sounds like a patron. But it's pretty arguable as to whether he had that internal respect, the consent of the governed. He definitely had star quality, and as he went along in his career he exerted more and more influence over people. But he was rash at times, and this is a problem. Hinault, by contrast, acted decently toward most or all of the peloton as long as they didn't take him on. He even stood up for rider rights, a key toward winning that respect, on a more human level (as opposed to respect for your riding abilities). Lance was absent for long stretches. I don't think guys respect you when you're training in Tenerife and they're slogging through sleet in Paris-Nice.

The last factor I can name is another problem for Lance: public recognition. I list it last because the public's love won't save you in the Tour if the riders are out to stop you, but it certainly has some influence over how things go. Take Armstrong. I'll skip the dopage stuff, since that was life in cycling back then and Lance's problems didn't really blow up until he stopped in 2005. But Lance squandered a lot of public approval when he chased down Filippo Simeoni himself. It was an ugly incident, since Simeoni was a whistleblower, and for ugly incidents you may have to carry them out, that's life as a power broker. But ask any politician -- if it's truly ugly, you get someone else to do it. Now history will rank Simeoni as someone who stood up to power, something that wouldn't have happened if he could have been quietly demolished.

***

OK, Contador's case. On the bike I don't get the sense that he has enemies he destroys, or rivals he controls. He just wins. Like Indurain, he doesn't act the part of the Patron, per se. Futile or not, he gets attacked, like the Arenberg stage last year. If Hinault were attacked on such a stage, he would have hit back, to prove that it was unwise to even perceive him as having weaknesses, let alone try to exploit them.

Contador's next big problem is the Clen case. IMHO his transgression is overblown compared to the blowback, but things have been made worse by the Spanish Fed's sweeping under the rug of the case, and Contador's failure to own it. He really is legitimate, I think, so it's a shame that his legitimacy has taken the hit it has. Smart plan would have been to accept some penalty, own it and make it go away. But dragging it across the Giro and now the Tour has been bad for cycling, and a Patron cannot be seen as hurting the sport.

The final problem for Contador, IMHO, is simply the era. It's easy to be the big fish in a small pond, but the sport has expanded and there is so much more talent than there was 25 years ago. There is money invested in training, science, equipment and other advantages, around the world. There are more fans from more countries, supporting their own challengers to the throne. As great as Contador may be, the sport is simply not as controllable anymore. If he's not the Parton, then nobody really is, and may never be again.

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Ah, but never, or more accurately ever, is a long time. Maybe the nature of Patrons is evolving. Maybe you can have selective patron-hood. And for that I think one need take a look at subsets of cycling. Like the classics. And at classics riders. Like Fabian Cancellara...

Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport