Riding to Win in the Tour de France

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, the Tour de France peloton raced from Vaison-le-Romaine to Gap. It was Stage 16, one I witnessed afresh only yesterday while riding my exercise bike. This familiar Tour route is famed for the Lance Armstrong exploit in 2003 on the last descent, when Josebo Beloki’s rear tire came unglued in the heat approaching a sharp curve, Beloki crashed in front of Lance (sustaining injuries that effectively ended his career), and Armstrong avoided the fallen rider by riding across a hayfield, dismounting and leaping with his bike across a deep ditch cyclocross style, and rejoining the leading group for the last 3 kilometers into town. That was the year Armstrong ended with the yellow jersey on his back but officially didn’t win the race for the fifth time. Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr89ku-K2WU

In 2013 there wasn’t quite so much drama. Going into the stage Chris Froome, coming off a victory at Mont Ventoux, had a 4’14” lead over Bauke Mollema and 4’ 25” over Alberto Contador. With only five stages after this one, the race was already for second place behind Froome.   Contador, a two-time Tour winner (with a third title stripped for doping in 2010), was desperate to solidify his third-place spot on the podium (he finished fourth). He attacked several times on the third and last climb of the day, the category 2 Col de Manse, and though he got a couple of gaps on Froome, the race leader was able to close them down with the help of able teammate Richie Porte. On that last descent, so costly to Beloki a decade earlier, Contador took all kinds of chances to gain a few precious seconds. Froome, with a safe overall lead, nevertheless tried to stay with Contador, mostly to symbolize that he was in control of the race, and that further attempts by Contador to gain time would fail as certainly as the earlier ones had.

Froome and Contador

Froome (yellow jersey) clips in after avoiding Contador (on left).

On a fast, tight turn about halfway down, Contador overcooked it. The video is unclear, but it appears that Contador had to unclip, put a foot down, and come almost completely off his bike. This sudden slowdown from a speed that was probably about 40 mph threw the trailing Froome off. (Remember that in professional bike racing they are only inches away from one another). He veered, had to go off the road onto the narrow gravel shoulder, and put his foot down before re-clipping and recovering his control and direction. As the two were getting back up to speed, side by side, Froome said something to Contador.

They finished the race together in their small group of leaders, 11’08” off the pace, trailing 26 other riders, including a breakaway of several cyclists that in turn trailed the stage winner Rui Costa by 42 seconds. Afterwards Froome complained that Contador “was actually taking a few too many risks there.” He thought Contador “was pushing a little bit too fast” on the downhill curves, putting Froome “in danger.” Froome’s attitude is quite traditional for the yellow jersey holder, especially one who is dominating the race. Others should respect the race leader, and not challenge him except on his own terms.

The skeptical viewer might well see Froome as putting himself at risk. He didn’t need every second the way Contador did; he was shadowing Contador to symbolize his own dominance. That was his choice, and he ended up putting himself in danger. It’s a mentality that I see quite often in bike racing. Froome was essentially accusing Contador of trying too hard to win. In most sports winning, as the late great football coach Vince Lombardi said, “isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But not in the minds of all cyclists. Poor Chris Froome actually had to maneuver his bike suddenly because Alberto Contador was going all out. How disrespectful! Chris, you poor baby.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.

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