After treading water for the better part of a week, today the Tour de France finally delivered one of those moments that reminds those of us who pay attention why we pay attention.
It happened very close to the top of the Port de Balès, a difficult climb that had seen a lot of jockeying for position on the way up. Andy Schleck had just tried an attack, which was clearly not going to succeed. Alexandre Vinokourov had come up right behind Schleck with his teammate Alberto Contador following. Just at that moment, Schleck’s bike slipped a chain and in a flash, Vino passed Schleck and Contador flew by both of them like he had been shot out of a cannon. Schleck struggled to get the problem sorted out, costing him long, excruciating seconds, and this may have been where he missed his brother Frank most of all. Had he still been in the race, Frank might well have been there to give Andy his bike at this crucial moment; but as it happened, the other members of the Saxo Bank team were nowhere to be seen.
For the rest of the race Contador rode like a demon with Schleck chasing frantically. There were some pretty dramatic images as they descended the other side of the mountain – pardon my French – mére putain fast. In the end, Contador preceded Schleck across the line by 39 seconds, putting him 8 seconds in the lead with a total time of 72 hours, 50 minutes, and 42 seconds.
Though this might seem simple and straightforward to you stupid Americans, it is anything but. Cycling fans all over the world are debating intensely whether Contador violated the Code of the Tour by taking advantage of Schleck’s mechanical problem. According to tradition, you’re supposed to wait for another rider who’s had a crash or a bike issue; it’s a question of honor, and there are many relevant examples in Tour history. The question is, did Contador transgress the unwritten rule?
Andy Schleck believed that he had:
It’s not up to me to decide but I would not have attacked the yellow jersey. I would not attack the race leader like that. If he would have dropped me it wouldn’t have been a problem for me, but not this way. I guess we all have different cultures. Personally I wouldn’t ride like that. My stomach is full of anger. I’m going to take my revenge on the Tourmalet.
Contador felt otherwise:
We’d been marking each other and I was starting to think about attacking. I was told after I did attack that there had been an incident, but when I launched the attack I didn’t have any idea about what the incident was. When I did find out what had happened we already had a big advantage and it was too late to do anything about it as we were all riding hard.
And for a minute there, a very convenient narrative was emerging with Contador as the villian who had claimed the yellow jersey under dishonorable circumstances; he was even booed on the podium as he accepted the jersey, which doesn’t happen very often. As someone who doesn’t especially care for Contador, I was happy to buy into that, but upon further review I have to admit that the reality is more complicated. I watched the pivotal seconds a bunch of times and it is possible, just possible, that Contador saw Schleck slow down but didn’t know why. He was then so quickly out of sight that he wouldn’t have known what happened until he heard on his earpiece during the descent, at which point he was in a group with some other high-placed riders that he couldn’t afford to lose time to. He could have tried to organize the group to wait for Schleck, which would have been the standup thing to do, but then again language barriers or the general chaos of a high-speed descent may have made that impossible.
The very latest development, trés 2010, is that Contador has posted an apology to Schleck on the YouTube. It is in Spanish, of course, because Contador does not have the Courtesy to Speak English, but there are subtitles:
Unfortunately, the subtitles kind of suck. Here is a better translation I found:
Today I managed to get on the podium, which makes me happy. The problem with that was the circumstances. Right when I attacked Andy had a mechanical on the last climb. The race was in full gear and, well, maybe I made a mistake, I’m sorry.
At a time like that all you think about is riding as fast as you can. I’m not happy, in the sense that, to me, fair play is very important. Just like I did in the Spa stage, when both Andy and Fränk were behind the pack, I didn’t hesitate to stop the bunch so that they could catch up.
Many people criticized me for doing that, especially after the stage on the cobbles, when the crash happened and the whole bunch split as a result, and it allowed Andy to take time on me, but I always settle it by saying I’d do it again. The kind of thing that happened today is not something I like, it’s not my style and I hope my relationship with Andy will remain as good as before.
Well, I don’t know; do you believe him? On the one hand, the fact that he went to the trouble to record this makes it seem like he cares. On the other hand, maybe all he cares about is that people are saying he’s a punk. To me, there’s something in his demeanor that seems less like genuine remorse and more like covering your ass. But it’s a close call.
Here’s what we do know: Plucky little Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, a big Gainsbourg fan I think, won stage 15. Contador took the jersey, Schleck is 8 seconds behind. 5 stages remain, of which 3 really matter: 16 and 17, which are in the Pyrenees, and 19, which is a long time trial. Schleck has vowed revenge and, apology or no, will be extraordinarily motivated to go for the gusto tomorrow or Thursday. History may be made, and I’ll be there to tell you about it. Well, here. Somewhere anyway. You can take that to the bank.