Second Thoughts on the Contador-Schleck Affair

I’ve had some more time to contemplate yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France. We had some conversations about it at work, Facebook and Twitter; and I had a bit of a think on my ride this afternoon. (There were no “penalty laps” for me today, by the way.) Some of those people are probably reading this, and I invite them (and everyone else) to leave a comment.

Former carpool buddy Steve noted that if an auto racer has a mechanical problem, they don’t stop the race. True indeed. I do think the comparison falls apart when you consider that the car really is the thing that does all the work. Sure, it has to be driven well; but the car is the thing that’s tuned, and it’s the sine qua none of auto racing. Bikes matter in the Tour de France, of course; but the UCI tries to keep everything fair-ish between riders.

Meanwhile, all-around badass Alex simply says, “Cry me a river.” He has some interesting points. As an oh-so-close-to-elite runner — seriously, he ran a 2:27 Boston Marathon — I take what he says seriously from an athlete’s perspective, and he likes to think about the social aspects of sport. He professes great respect for the Tour and its riders, and I believe he’s sincere. His main points are thus:

  1. If a runner trips, no one waits. Why should cycling be any different?
  2. Europeans like to inject unnecessary ambiguity and drama into sporting events. Every World Cup or European championship has some event that lets the losing team argue that it should have won, that they lost because of bad officiating or bad luck. And these “unwritten rules” of cycling are just another way of perpetuating an inter-European or “us vs. them” rivalry and means never having to acknowledge someone else is better.
  3. The structure of Grand Tour cycling teams is very 19th century, with expectations of deferring to your superiors and having some competitors there to serve team leaders.

All I can do is agree with Alex on these observations, but I don’t really think that some of them apply very much to cycling, which is a different kind of animal than running or footie. Running is all and only about pure talent: Anyone can do it; you don’t need much more than innate ability, a bit of tactics and self-awareness, and the time to train; and you can pretty easily rank people objectively on time over a given distance. These are some of the reasons that I love running almost as much as cycling.

But you also can’t really have a running race like the Tour de France, where you compete for 4-6 hours every day for three weeks. (I guess that means cycling is easier than running. :^) And if you’re going to have such a race, you need helpers for the people who can actually win it. And some of them have to be riders without a chance of winning the Tour. Alright, you could just have the 20 strongest cyclists in the world go out and ride every man for himself for 23 days, but it would be a very, very boring race. No amazing sprinters would show up. No mountain specialists either. It would be everybody getting their asses handed to them by two or three guys over and over again. Yawn.

What does all this have to do with Alberto Contador attacking Andy Schleck? Well, I can definitely see where people are coming from when they say, as Ryder Hesjdal did yesterday, “Hey, that’s bicycle racing.” If that’s how you want to race, it’s true that there are no actual rules against it. And I can see how if you’re inclined to see all sports events as a battle of wills and skills between completely autonomous actors that’s also seasoned by both good and bad luck, it would make sense that you’d see no problem whatsoever in what Contador did yesterday. I get that.

But cycling is a team sport that mixes contenders and helpers, however elitist or class-suffused that strikes you. And if that’s the way it’s going to be, there are consequences to crossing certain lines, even if they’re fuzzy, unwritten, nonbinding, “gentlemanly,” quaint lines. Crossing those lines — like attacking in the feed zone or trying take the lead on the final day — will alienate you from the public and your fellow riders, the people who you might need to help you control the pace someday or chase down a shared rival.

So was it wrong? Not in any kind of absolute right and wrong. It’s not in the same class as doping or cheating or knocking over a rival. Was it a smart move for Contador in the stage? We’ll see. Everyone says he’s a better time-trialist than Schleck and could certainly have taken the lead on the second to last day; but that’s cutting it a little close, to be sure. Frankly, I’m not sure that Schleck could have taken all that much time yesterday. Given the time Contador gained on the downhill, he might not have lost any time after the attack at all. Then again, maybe he would have, and they were only 31 seconds apart at the start of the day. We’ll never know the true impact.

(My objection yesterday was that Contador’s attack was a weaker rider taking advantage of a stronger rider’s technical malfunction to get an unfair advantage. I still feel that way, but since we can’t know what would have happened if Schleck’s initial attack would have succeeded, I’m going to just say that it’s more up in the air and debatable than I had suggested.)

But in the long run, it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what Contador and Schleck’s peers think. If there are enough riders who feel like Hesjdal, then maybe Contador hasn’t done anything wrong. But if there are more riders like Armstrong who look at this with some suspicion or hostility, then maybe it was a chump move in the end.

We’ll see.

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