This winter I find myself thinking about cycling like the baseball fan I am: retrospectively. Baseball is a game of statistics, of cumulative performances, of the past. Every winter myriad meetings of the “Hot Stove League” (another wryly humorous American phrase, conjuring the small town tradition of long conversations around the warm spot in the town’s general store on lazy, short, dark afternoons) recalled the heroics of seasons past and looked forward to new glories to come, during the part of the year when every team has a perfect record and limitless potential.
Cycling too has its past heroics and future glories, though all too often the past is altered by post-race drug test results. Now it appears that Alberto Contador, apparent winner of the Tour de France in 2010, will be stripped of his victory and Samuel Sanchez will mount the podium as third-place finisher not in the sunshine of late-July Paris, but in the obscurity of world-wide cryptic spreadsheet “delete row” mouse-clicks in cyberspace.
I reported in this blog my foray back to the 2009 Tour through Bill Strickland’s book Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Lance Armstrong’s Fight to Reclaim the Tour de France. In it he evoked not only the key moments of the Tour but the dynamics within the Astana team, in which Lance vied with Contador for top position in team leadership and road performance. In performance Contador proved himself the best rider and convincingly won the Tour. In team leadership, Strickland reports that there were “eight hearts together” on the nine-man squad. Contador was the odd man out. Partly this situation came about because the team was stocked with riders who were friends of, and loyal to, Lance. Partly it was a matter of respecting the comeback of the most successful rider the Tour has ever seen. And partly, according to Strickland, Contador proved himself disloyal to the team and disobedient to the Directeur Sportif [Head Coach], Johann Bruyneel. The team behaved totally professionally at the Tour, not allowing their feelings to undercut their purposeful and successful fulfillment of their assigned roles as they rode to the Best Team award and First Place (Contador) and Third Place (Armstrong) individual finishes.
I just finished a several-day stint of indoor riding during which I reviewed the 13-hour DVD set of the ’09 Tour. Armed with Strickland’s insights, I sought them out in the film and reportage of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. My observations confirmed what Strickland narrated. In an early stage, when Armstrong got in the lead group as a crosswind split the peloton and Contador did not, Contador was peeved afterwards. On the first mountaintop finish at Andorre Arcalis, Contador disobeyed Astana team plans by attacking the chase group containing Armstrong and all the other favorites, taking back most of the time he was down to Armstrong. In the 15th stage at Verbier, Contador decisively proved himself the best rider in the race, outclimbing everyone to claim the Yellow Jersey (overall leader of the race). But a couple of days later he attacked when he didn’t have to, putting Astana teammate Andreas Klöden in difficulty and costing him a shot at a top-3 overall finish and Astana a shot at sweeping the top three spots. Liggett and Sherwen noticed on the ceremonial last day’s ride into Paris, with Contador confirmed as race winner and Astana as best team, Contador was riding alone while the other Astana riders grouped around Armstrong, sipping champagne en route to the Arc du Triomphe.
Lance clearly and rightly stated in several interviews that Contador was the best cyclist in the race, and that he (Lance) could not keep pace when they were climbing one-on-one. Lance was pleased enough to have ridden a smart, tough race, taking on successfully his challengers for third place. But Contador blew his chance to be a respected team leader by acting out for his self-perceived interests. For all the individual recognitions and awards that cycling road racing offers, it is also deeply a team sport, built on loyalty and fairness. Contador understood that neither in 2009 nor the next year, in 2010, when his victory was significantly dependent on his unsportsmanlike attack when his chief rival, Andy Schleck, was having mechanical difficulty. Perhaps the positive drug test that threatens to make Schleck the Yellow Jersey winner is divine retribution. Pro cycling oddly embraces the extremes of old-fashioned chivalric sportsmanship and persistent au courant techno-doping. What a fascinating sport! My feeling’s not the same as when I hear of pitchers and catchers reporting to training camp, but excitement is also in my veins as the 2011 cycling season begins in such venues as Qatar and Langkawi.
Guess Contador will have to watch this year’s action on TV.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.