First off, I went for my first ride since before we left for Australia. I know, it’s been a while. I have been running, but I think I was rather not looking forward to how slow I was going to be getting back in the saddle after a six week hiatus. It was a long enough time that I forgot a key turn on my new training route and had to take an extra penalty lap around the center of Upton. I was, as you might suspect, rather slower than before. But it wasn’t a total debacle, and my core muscles are still in pretty good shape. So yay for that! Tomorrow is another day, and the season isn’t even half over yet — well, maybe it’s about half over.
What I really want to do is to discuss today’s stage 15 of the Tour de France. Yes, it’s the one where Alberto Contador attacks Andy Schleck, the leader of the Tour, while he has mechanical issues. It was the subject of some “let’s try not to spoil the stage for Jeff, who has TiVo’d it” discussion at the office today, a spirited exchange between the Versus TV commentators, and a whole lot of 140-characters-or-fewer musings and arguments on Twitter.
I’ll give you my view, but first watch this:
Contador passes Schleck to take the yellow jersey. Schleck rides with anger and promises revenge.
The first 45 seconds show all the important events, beginning with Andy Schleck attacking and almost immediately having a bad shift that (all but certainly) jams his chain between the front derailleur and the chainring, forcing him to dismount. While he’s slowing, he’s caught by Alexei Vinoukorov, the Astana rider chasing him down for Alberto Contador, who was in second place overall at the time. (You can debate whether those two actually play that nicely and if Vino was going off on his own.) Vino knew something was up as El Pistolero passed them both and never looked back. Schleck eventually got back into the mix of it — with, I must say, some truly impressive uphill riding — but those 40 seconds he lost to the chain problem turned into an 8-second deficit in the competition.
So what do I think? Well, I hope you watched the rest of the video past the first 45 seconds, because that was some truly possessed climbing by Andy Schleck to be only 12-13 seconds behind at the top of the climb and some really daredevil descending by Contador, et al., to extend that margin to 39 seconds at the end of the day’s stage.
As for the propriety of Contador’s actions — attacking a rider who is in mechanical distress — that’s trickier.
I can’t fault Contador for riding hard and for wanting to win the Tour. After stage 14, when Schleck countered his every move, he clearly knew that it was going to be hard to take time out of the Luxemburger. And the Spaniard was racing to catch up after his rival caught him out. It seems like Contador knew that the only way that he could win was if he got very lucky and pushed on whatever fortuitous breaks came his way. Cycling is a very difficult sport — and this is perhaps the most difficult and prestigious sporting event in the world — so I can see doing what you have to do.
But during the last few stages, Contador has looked like the weaker rider. (Still a very capable rider, perhaps even very nearly the best in the world.) And both he and Contador are equally smart racers. Contador’s Astana team does look to be stronger than Schleck’s Saxo Bank riders, though.
Now, if there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s a Tour de France won by a weaker rider who got where he did through happenstance.
As for whether Contador should have waited, just as Jan Ullrich did when Lance Armstrong fell in the mountains during the 2003 Tour, that’s open to debate. I certainly would have, had I known that he had fallen and been able to do it without sacrificing my position to challengers. (Of course my racing career only extends as far as two amateur road races in high school when I finished well off the back.)
Armstrong crashes on an attack and then has mechanical problems.
But that was 2003. Today Contador couldn’t match the attack and wasn’t able to keep up with Vino who might have pulled him up to Schleck. (That Astana team is strong, but they certainly have teamwork issues.) When the Kazakh slowed down while marking Schleck, Contador blew past them both. It’s debatable whether Vinokouraov could have told his teammate about the leader’s mechanical issues. As a domestique, maybe it wasn’t even really his place to rein in the putative leader of the team. At any rate, I can’t believe that Contador wouldn’t have sensed something was up when he sailed past the almost stationary yellow jersey. And Menchov or Sanchez surely knew and could have relayed the information to him.
Contador doesn’t seem to be the kind of rider who honors traditions or team dynamics or teammates, so I’m not surprised that he didn’t hold up. And as the defending champion he would have had the clout to keep his rivals Menchov and Sanchez from going on ahead without him and the Tour leader. Now, it all happened very quickly, but I just don’t think Contador is built that way in the sportsmanship/fair-play department.
So was it wrong to counterattack the yellow jersey during a short mechanical crisis of Schleck’s own unfortunate and unintentional making? Maybe, maybe not. But I respect those in the crowd who booed Contador at the podium ceremony when he put on the leader’s jersey — just as I respect those who cheered him. And I’m reminded of Paul Sherwen’s words in the second clip above: “You know, in the sport of professional cycling, there’s always payback time. You can never burn your bridges. Don’t ever make enemies.”
I’m hoping that Tuesday’s stage 16 has a bit of payback time in it.