Sportsmanship: Tour de France, 2010

In radio days, each colorful sportscaster had a sign-off tag line.  These were beautifully parodied by Bob and Ray’s “This is Wally Ballou, rounding third and being thrown out at home.”  My favorite real-world sign-off tag was a Boston announcer, Jim Britt I believe, who would say “If you can’t take part in a sport, be one anyway, will ya?”  Being a sport, being fair and ethical in the old Grantland Rice tradition of  “it’s how you played the game” that counts, was the watchword.

Most major sports have been eaten up over the last 50 or 60 years by the “win at all cost” mentality.  From the college basketball point shaving scandals of a few decades back, to the use of performance-enhancing drugs openly or surreptitiously, to the angrily obsessive, interfering team owners (the name Steinbrenner comes to mind), the joy of the game, any game, has diminished.

Professional cycling, despite all the recent drug scandals, has also and paradoxically been a bastion of old-fashioned gallantry.  The riders compete fiercely while they’re on the bike, of course.  But there are unwritten rules about how that fierceness is executed.  You do not attack a rider while he’s stopped for a bathroom break.  You do not cut a rider off or push him into the barriers during a sprint.  You do not take advantage when another rider has a crash or a mechanical problem; you maintain pace until he recovers and the competition can resume on an even footing.

The first law is sometimes violated if the peloton wants to “punish” an extremely unpopular rider, who has probably earned his unpopularity by being a jerk in one way or another.  The second law is actually more official and less unwritten than the other two.  In fact Mark Cavendish’s leadout man, Mark Renshaw, was evicted from the Tour in 2010 after a sprint stage in which he first  cut off a rival sprinter and then drove American sprinter Tyler Farrar against the barriers.  That kind of riding can hurt people seriously and can’t be tolerated.  Cyclists are hitting 60 or more km/hr in a bunch sprint, with just a few centimeters clearance.

But that third law, there’s the rub.  When do you wait for a rival, and when, in the heat of competition, do you have to push on?  Not everybody who crashes, or everybody who has a mechanical, gets waited for.  But in one of his earlier tour victories, Lance Armstrong backed off the pace and waited for arch-rival Jan Ullrich to rejoin after Ullrich overshot a turn and flipped head over heels into a deep ditch.  Luckily he and his bike could continue, he caught up with Lance, and they fought it out on the last climb of the day.  As always, Armstrong prevailed.  A couple of years later, Armstrong and Ullrich were going head to head again on a mountain stage.  Armstrong attacked, and he and (improbably) Iban Mayo had a gap.  Armstrong “shaved the crowd” too closely and went down like a ton of bricks when a spectator’s bag strap caught in his handlebars.  Ullrich went around the downed riders, but held a moderate tempo.  Armstrong soon recovered, rode back to the group of leaders, they started racing again, and Armstrong surged ahead to put 45 seconds into Ullrich at the finish.  Tit for tat, fair and square, best man won.

2010 is less glorious in the annals of Tour sportsmanship.  An episode on Stage 15 cost Andy Schleck the yellow jersey and perhaps the overall Tour victory.  And many fans interpret the behavior of Schleck’s major rival and eventual Tour winner Alberto Contador as very poor sportsmanship.  The stage was a long one with four categorized climbs, the most difficult by far being the last, the Port de Bales.  The race did not end at the peak, however, but ran 21 more kilometers downhill to a finish in the town of Bagneres-du-Luchon.  Halfway up that last, hard climb the group of riders containing the main tour contenders was closing in on a small breakaway group of stage leaders.  Contador was marking Schleck, and had stayed with him the few times Schleck had tried short accelerations.  Just a few kilometers from the top of the climb, Schleck attacked again, with a hard, sustained effort.  This was no feint, but an attempt to leave Contador behind, crest the peak with a lead, and maintain the lead on the downhill run to the line.  Schleck’s move was covered not by Contador but by Contador’s teammate Alexander Vinokourov.   Vino was almost up to Schleck, a good 30 or 40 feet ahead of the group, when suddenly Schleck slowed to a stop; he had dropped his chain!  Contador, seeing this, was on him in a flash.  He and several riders darted around Schleck, who was having trouble getting the chain back on the gears.

It seemed like an eternity, but by the time Schleck recovered he was 10 to 15 seconds behind Contador.  Schleck may have taken back a couple of seconds by the summit, but he surprisingly lost about 30 on the way downhill.  The descent was long and technical, and there were no guard rails on the winding mountain road.  Contador was with a couple of ace descenders whom he could follow; Schleck was not.  At the end of the day Contador had moved from a 31 second deficit to an 8 second lead.  When he put on the yellow jersey at the post-stage ceremonies, the crown roundly booed him.  But Contador was still wearing that jersey after six more stages, at the finish in Paris.

Fair play in the heat of battle, or taking unfair advantage?  In my last few days of indoor exercise (March is going out like a soggy, frigid lamb) I’ve been watching the 2010 Tour DVDs, and have reviewed this episode carefully.  First, the reason for Schleck’s dropping his chain is not obvious.  Perhaps he messed up a shift of gears, though the expensive drive train he was using is pretty supple and forgiving.  Perhaps a mechanic didn’t get the drive train adjustment exactly right.  You can see the rear end of Schleck’s bike “hop” in the air at the moment of catastrophe, as if the gears suddenly seized up.  So it seems that the chain probably got jammed between the gears and the chainstay when it came off.

It is also evident that Contador saw exactly what was going on, though he later claimed he didn’t.  He was pretty far behind Schleck, and seems to have been urged forward at that point by Vino, whom nobody would suspect of playing fair in any given situation.  (This is the guy who attacked his own team on a stage a couple of years earlier, and was just returning from a two-year suspension for blood doping, a charge he kept denying despite clear evidence.)  Contador seems to glance at Schleck as he goes by, by which time Schleck has stopped his bike, has a foot on the ground, and is trying to lift the chain back up over the gears.  Pretty evident what is going on.

Given the tradition reflected in the Armstrong/Ullrich precedents, it seems clear to me Contador should have kept pace until Schleck rejoined him.  You can say that Ullrich, Armstrong, and Schleck were all involved in accidents that were their “own fault.”  Since there were still 25 km to go when the Schleck/Contador incident happened, you can’t claim that the “rush to the finish” prevented waiting.  As to Contador’s motives, I think Phil Liggett, the TV commentator, had it right when he said that Contador was desperate.  Schleck seemed to have him on the ropes, and Contador did not (could not?) respond to the hard attack just before the dropped chain.  So fear of finishing second (not “losing,” because finishing second out of about 160 in the hardest race in the world is no disgrace) motivated Contador.  The “win at all cost” mentality prevailed.  It’s how you play the game these days.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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