Lance Armstrong was famed for the attention he afforded to the minutiae of the Tour de France. Part of the Texan’s compulsive desire to triumph meant devoting every waking moment to making his bike go faster. Months spent in wind tunnels with teams of sports scientists poring over drag equations, weeks spent riding the roads that the Tour would course through – such things were the foundations on which Armstrong’s dominance was built. His theory was simple. The Tour is such a monolithic event that unexpected things will happen and only with determined planning and rigourous attention will their impact be minimised. The importance of this doctrine will not be lost on Andy Schleck.
Coming into the second day in the Pyrenees with 30 seconds seperating him and the Tour holder Alberto Contador, Schleck’s mission was simple, but daunting: put enough time between him and the machine-like Spaniard to cushion inevitable losses in the time-trial and the greatest prize in cycling was his. Contador’s form has been shrouded some what. Schleck has attacked with the vibrancy and tenacity that make him so reminiscent of the great mountain riders of yore and Contador has not looked unduly troubled. Yet neither has he looked capable of the unfeasible bursts of speed that make him so feared and leave his rivals stunned and broken on the gargantuan slopes for which the Tour is famed. Many suggested yesterday would be the day when we found out if Contador was the rider of 2009 or whether he had sucessfully been bluffing behind those mirrored, yellow tinged shades.
So when Schleck attacked on the Port de Bales, exactly 100 years to the day since this astonishing race first came into this foreboding mountain range, it looked as though his aptitude amidst the altitude had finally shaken off the seemingly impervious Contador. What happened next should be reserved for the pages of a melodramatic cycling screenplay in which a romantic hero, Schleck, who is devoted to the dying noble art of pure mountain climbing falls foul of a mechanical error to let a more mechanical, harder to love hero , Contador, win the day. Such a storyline seems implausible but as Schleck sprinted away from the Astana leader churning a big gear and flicking the chain through the sprockets to find an even bigger one it came loose and his pedals began to whir round with comedic ease. Twice, maybe three times he bent down and tried to quickly remedy the problem but by that time Contador was away up the mountain, leaving the unfortunate Luxembourger to chase down into the valley finish at Bagneres-de-Luchon losing enough time to take him out of the Yellow jersey by eight seconds.
The incident, so incredible in its timing, has ignited fierce debate amongst cycling fans, commentators and the riders themselves. Etiquette dictates that when the yellow jersey has a mechanical failure or falls then his challengers wait for him in order to preserve parity and the integrity of the race. When Lance Armstrong was felled by a spectator, his great rival Jan Ullrich waited for him on the slopes of the Pyrenees and even this year, when riders dropped like flies in the pounding Belgian rain, on the run into Spa a peloton “go-slow” was instigated by the then Maillot Jaune, Fabien Cancellara. Schleck is, unsurprisingly, livid claiming that Contador utilised his misfortune to catapult himself into the lead. The TV coverage that I have seen so far, from the two main providers for British audiences ITV4 and Eurosport, featured two views to the contrary from ex-pros Chris Boardman and former Tour winner Stephen Roache. Roache was particulary bullish in his assertion that the slipped chain was the fault of Schleck himself. He claimed that any bike rider will know the risks attached to changing such mammoth gears at the moment of acceleration and that it was poor technical decision from the former leader. Boardman as well suggested that a chain “going” can be the fault of the rider but was not afforded the same time by his broadcaster to explain in as great a detail why he felt Contador’s behaviour was acceptable.
I can see no circumstance in which Contador can be excused such cynicism in a sport that usually prides itself on the way that noble convention rules its greatest of events. Whether Schleck was the architect of his own demise in changing gear at the wrong moment is almost irrelevant – we have no way of knowing with the benefit of multiple replays in the hours after the event. Contador also stated that he felt justified as he was planning to attack during the stage anyway. To me such a claim is erroneous and will only inflame Schleck’s desire for revenge. When the Saxo Bank leader sprinted away on that climb it was not Contador that got into his slip stream but his team mate Alexandre Vinokourov. Vinokourov seeing that something was wrong with Schleck’s bike rode past at tempo and did not rachet up his speed. Contador, who had either been caught napping or was unable to match Schleck’s speed, stormed up and, clearly seeing the trouble that his rival his in, pulled himself out of the saddle and danced away towards the summit. No matter what Alberto Contador says he took full adavantage of mechanical misfortune to get himself back in yellow. He had no way of knowing what had happened to Schleck and, just when it appeared that the insistent attacks of the former Yellow Jersey had paid off he flew past him as he whirled his chain in anger.
Regardless of the fairness of it all it makes for great drama. Now there is the added needle of a man who feels he has been wronged, even if he says he has now forgiven the Spaniard. However, this sense of injustice failed to fire Schleck as he battled with one of the Tour’s greatest peaks, the Col de Tourmalet, today. Schleck still has one aim, to become the winner of the coveted Maillot Jaune. Whether he is sucessful is an entirely different matter, the Astana man is still a formidable prospect, but either way it will be riveting and compulsive sporting viewing.