Schleck and Contador by Monet
Today’s writing is dedicated to George Clinton, the Benjamin Franklin of funk, who turns 70 today. For those of you keeping score at home, that means he was born exactly 15 days after Ringo Starr in July 1940. Ringo and George (Clinton) share one essential quality, which is that it’s hard to think of them without feeling just a little bit happier. “With a Little Help from My Friends,” The Mothership Connection, “It Don’t Come Easy,” Maggot Brain…we’re glad these things exist, aren’t we? And its nice to know their creators are still walking the Earth. Love on ya, boys.
And what does this have to do with the Tour de France? Well, you’re reading about them in the same place, aren’t you? So they must have something to do with each other.
Stage 17 was the big showdown on the Col du Tourmalet, and it was a cold, rainy, foggy day. The images on the TV were dreamlike and impressionistic, with the raindrops on the camera lens giving everything a sort of Monet quality. And then, out of the fog, there are two figures, one in white and one in yellow: Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, having left everyone else behind and shooting to the top of the mountain.
The Tour is taking the day off and this reporter is quite busy, but I did enjoy reading about an incident that happened the other day between two members of the AG2R team. Nicholas Roche, the team leader, had a flat tire about 6k from the top of the Port de Balés. He asked his nearest teammate, Frenchman John Gadret, for his wheel, which is a fairly routine request. But, says Roche,
I couldn’t believe what happened next. He just shook his head and said “Non.” At first I thought he was joking, but soon realised he wasn’t when he kept riding past me.
This is even more amusing if you picture Gadret giving a classic Gallic shrug of the shoulders before leaving his leader in the lurch. Roche, who is Irish, apparently has a bit of a temper:
If John Gadret is found dead in his hotel room in the morning, I will probably be the primary suspect. But after today’s stage, as he sat beside me on the team bus I had great difficulty in not putting his head through the nearest window…. Although I wanted to smash his head in, and had visions of a baldy French climber exiting through the windscreen, I let Vincent do his job as team manager and said nothing. I got off the bus as quickly as possible and travelled to the hotel in the team car. I couldn’t stand to be near him. I will have to keep my hands in my pockets at the dinner table.
Fantastic, no? There have been some subsequent reports that Roche and Gadret made up – and, for that matter, that Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador have reached some sort of rapprochement – but where’s the fun in that? Hate, bitterness, feuds, rivalry; these are the things I’m looking for. This is what will make tomorrow’s crucial Stage 17 something special. Look in your hearts, boys, and remember everything you have to be angry about.
There was lots more fallout from the Incident of the Chain today. Andy Schleck seemed in no mood to accept Alberto Contador’s apology, reiterating that “I would not have attacked in that situation.” Lance Armstrong weighed in, saying that he didn’t blame Contador for attacking, but there was no way Contador didn’t know immediately that Schleck’s problem was mechanical rather than physical. I was trying to give Contador the benefit of the doubt there, but Lance knows a lot more about it than I do.
Announcer Paul Sherwen agreed with Lance, and he got into a surprisingly heated disagreement with his partner Phil Liggett, who defended Contador. Normally those two guys are in complete accord about everything. At one point Sherwen even brought up the fact that Liggett had never ridden in the Tour, which was a low blow if you ask me. Friendships are being tested all around; supposedly Contador and Schleck had been friends up to this point, and even once vacationed together. I don’t think that well be happening again anytime soon.
Andy Schleck looks down at his malfunctioning bike at the moment of truth.
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?
Five years ago, Stage 14 of the Tour was a potentially pivotal stage that finished with a climb to the ski resort town of Ax-3 Domaine. Today, same deal. Time does indeed run in circles.
As in 2005, there were a number of moments today when it looked like the shit was about to hit the fan, but in the end nothing changed much. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador remained more or less joined at the hip throughout the day, although on the last climb Contador kept putting in little bursts of acceleration to see if Schleck could stay with him, which he could. (Contador is apparently not familiar with the wise words of the Good Doctor: “Avoid those quick bursts of acceleration that drag blood to the back of the brain.”) At one point Paul Sherwen accused Contador of putting in “a very violent attack,” which is a funny way to talk about a guy riding his bike really fast, but that’s the terminology of cycling.
Stage 14 was the exact mirror of Stage 8, where it was Schleck doing the testing. It’s become pretty fascinating to watch these two guys, who appear to be perfectly evenly matched. Schleck lost to Contador last year by 4 minutes and 11 seconds, but he is still a growing boy, barely 25 years old. At the moment he leads Contador by 31 seconds, but in truth that is a dead heat if not an advantage for Contador, who is a much better time trialist. The last meaningful stage in this year’s Tour will be a 52-km time trial in which Contador is a mortal lock to beat Schleck; the only question is by how much.
This means that Andy will want to take some more time from Alberto in the mountains, which is a very tall order. He will really miss his big brother Frank, who was the only teammate capable of keeping him company on the climbs. Contador has two such guys in David Navarro and Alexandre Vinokourov, and that could end up making a big difference. Or not. There’s a lot of talk in the Tour about the intricacies of strategy, but in the end it comes down to who is the strongest, physically and psychologically.