Over half a century ago, in the early to mid 1950s, the Tour de France was shaping up into the kind of race we know today. Commercial sponsors, even outside bicycle manufacturers, were welcome in the difficult post-WW II economy. Derailleurs were allowed, and bikes were getting lighter, down to about 20 pounds, though steel was still the only material. Water bottle cages (and gearshift levers) were on the downtube, though the bottles were still aluminum. Skill levels were on the rise, and legendary names like Geminiani, Robic, Coppi, Bobet, and Gaul were in the peloton. Time gaps were coming down, though there was usually a space of ten to fifteen minutes between first and second place by the end of the decade, except for 2 or 3 tighter years.
And yet in other ways the race was so different. This year the Tour de France is “honoring” some of the classic Pyrenean climbs by racing four stages in those mountains and including the Port de Pailheres, Ax-3 Domaines, the Portet-d’Aspect, the Port de Balès, the Peresourde, the Col d’Aspin, the Col de Sulour (twice!), the Col d’Aubisque, the Col de Marie Blanque, and the Col de Tourmalet (twice!). Only the Marie Blanc plus the two repeats remain in tomorrow’s stage. The rest were all covered on stages 14, 15, and 16 on Sunday through yesterday. Today the riders are resting.
But in the old days the leaders raced aggressively on every mountain stage, were usually the first over the summits
of every climb, and sought to open up brutal time gaps on their foes. The usual black-and-white mountain shot from those days shows a lone, struggling rider, usually on a crudely paved or packed gravel surface, surrounded by a bevy of motorbikes, autos, and Land Rovers (yes, the motorized entourage had ramped up by then). You did not see the “yellow jersey group” three or four minutes behind the stage leader or leaders, warily eying each other but not attacking, while keeping just enough pace so that those out front don’t gain a dangerous amount of time. Here’s a quotation from Bill and Carol McGann’s excellent two-volume The Story of the Tour de France (Dog Ear Publishing, 2006), about Stage 12 in 1954:
[This stage] made the riders go over the Tourmalet, the Aspin, and the Peyresourde. This was another day of aggression that pushed men to their limits. Bahomontes was first over the Tourmalet. Bobet led over the Aspin. Bahomontes went over the final mountain in front and finished together with Malléjac, only 1 second behind Bauvin. Bobet fought to limit their advantage, losing 1 minute, 59 seconds. The rest? They were scattered across France. . . . There were no pretenders [in the GC top six after this stage], all were worthy racers. the huge time gaps after only two days in the mountains speaks volumes about the intensity of racing in this Tour.
This year, despite four HC (hors categorie: beyond the hardest classification) climbs and three Cat. 1 climbs (hardest classification) in the three stages from Sunday to yesterday, the standings changed almost not at all. On Saturday night, before Sunday’s first stage in the Pyrenees, they were:
Van Den Broeck 3:31
Today on the Rest Day before the last Pyrenean stage, they are:
Van Den Broeck 3:39
And the worst part is that practically the sole act of aggression over the three Pyrenees stages so far ended up hurting the aggressor by accident.
Sanchez and Menchov gained an insignificant 14 seconds on Sunday. But on Monday, a few km from the top of the long and difficult Port de Balès (up to 10% grade near the top), Schleck was in a great spot. He had used his team as Armstrong used to, each strong support rider pulling hard at the front of the pack as long as he could, towing the lead rider along at a high tempo and tiring out all the other riders. When the last one peeled off, Schleck attacked. Contador was immediately gapped, and it looked like he could not respond. The ever-aggressive Vinokourov, however, went with Schleck. A little way up the road Contador began to respond. Schleck stood on his pedals to gain power to stay ahead, and he dropped his chain! He didn’t react for a few instants (fractions of seconds?), but Vino saw what was going on and urged Contador forward, the two of them, with Menchov and Sanchez, took off while Schleck had to unclip, stand on the ground, reach down, and reattach his chain. He fumbled it the first time, so it took him what seemed like three eternities, but was probably ten to twelve seconds. By that time the attackers were long gone. Over the top of the mountain, Contador could follow Sanchez, and excellent descender, downhill on the steep and technical descent (90 to 100 kmh down a twisty, narrow road with no guard rails and deep dropoffs on the downhill side). So Contador gained 39 seconds on Schleck, and so did Sanchez and Menchov. That’s it. A huge shift in the dynamic of the race, the only change of time gaps among the leaders, and all because of a mechanical malfunction. Otherwise, there might well have been no change at all, or a slight change in Schleck’s favor.
What causes a dropped chain? One of two things probably. It could be that Schleck was cross-chained. When the chain is on the smaller gear on the crank it’s on the inside. When it’s on the smallest cog on the rear wheel it’s on the far outside. So it’s going on a slight diagonal between the crank and the rear wheel. The small cog gives the most power, and Schleck might have shifted into that cog just before he stood up. The diagonal angle can cause the chain to drop off the gear if there’s a sudden increase in the rate at which the gear’s turning, as when a rider stands up to gain more power. The other whole possibility is that the derailleur was slightly out of adjustment, so that if Schleck shifted the chain to the large gear the derailleur arm pushed it too far, right off the gear. Even professional mechanics can make a mistake. Needless to say, neither of these possibilities should have been attainable if the bike was perfectly adjusted.
When Contador was awarded the leader’s yellow jersey on the podium after the stage, he was booed almost as much as he was cheered. That’s because the unwritten rule is that you don’t attack another rider, especially the yellow jersey, when he’s taking a “nature break,” when he’s fallen, or when he’s had a mechanical failure. That way the race is won on merit, not lost by bad luck. Schleck was furious after the stage. Apparently he and Contador have since shaken hands on French TV. But I would think that Schleck will be highly motivated to attack tomorrow on the uphill finish atop the Tourmalet. For one thing, he’s got to have a good lead on Contador going into the Time Trial on Saturday. But I would think he’d also be motivated by anger, the breaking of the code of honor that you don’t take unfair advantage. (Yes, I know that secretly doping is also an unfair advantage, but that’s another whole issue.) So tomorrow should be an exciting stage, assuming the race leaders finally decide to do some ’50s-style racing.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.