It’s wrong for cycling fans, the media or riders to vilify Alberto Contador for “The Chain of Events” situation between Contador and Andy Schleck on the hors categorie Port de Balès Monday.
A few days ago I posted on Twitter that I’d prefer to see Andy Schleck win over Contador, primarily because Schleck is more personable than Contador. To me, Schleck seems warmer, more relaxed and more human; Contador is more reserved and calculating, although he’s very exciting as a racer. And as a journalist, it would be more interesting to weave together the story of Schleck’s first Tour win rather than Contador’s third.
There’s no question that it’s good for the Tour to have some drama, its first real polemica, to break the almost-too-chummy rivalry between Schleck and Contador, and to have a good guy, and a bad guy.
But, like most things in life, this situation not that simple — and most people will make their judgments based upon how they already felt about either Contador or Schleck. We saw that during last year’s race, when diehard Lance Armstrong fans vilified Contador, ignoring the facts that Armstrong made his comeback into Contador’s team, that Armstrong did what he could to turn the team against Contador, and that the Spaniard did what he needed to do to assert himself as the strongest rider in last year’s Tour.
But none of these things — Contador’s reserved personality, his tumultuous relationship with Armstrong, or his actions on the Balès yesterday — make him a bad guy, a dirty rider, or a villain.
And those that want to paint Contador out as such would do well to first remember that the Spaniard waited for Andy and Frank Schleck on stage 2 after the mass pile-up into Spa. Schleck wasn’t wearing the maillot jaune, and there was no rule, written or otherwise, that Contador had to wait. The Astana rider said he did so because it’s what he would have hoped had been done for him had the situation been reversed.
However what happened on the Port de Balès Monday afternoon was completely different. Here are five reasons why:
1. Schleck attacked first.
Faulting Contador for following through after Schleck initiated the move — and then had a mechanical — is akin to a man wearing glasses taking the first swing, dropping his glasses, and then asking to wait until he puts them back on before continuing the fight. At that point, the adrenaline is flowing, and the fight is on. As Ryder Hesjedal said at the start of stage 16, “If you draw your sword and then drop it, you die.”
2. Where it happened.
Schleck’s chain popped off the big ring in the final 3km of the final climb on a pivotal mountain stage during the third week of a hard Tour. Had it happened earlier, on the penultimate climb up the Col de Ares, the situation might have been different.
3. Contador wasn’t alone.
Podium threats Denis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez were there, and they were racing. Contador couldn’t risk a scenario where either of those men didn’t want to wait around for Schleck. With his time trial skills, and the strength he’s shown in the mountains, Menchov is still a viable threat to win this Tour — not a favorite, but a very real danger.
4. Contador didn’t have all the facts.
In the heat of battle, with a heart rate of 180 beats per minute, with thousands of fans screaming, with two weeks of racing in his legs, under intense pressure from sponsors, fans and media, and with little idea of what was actually going on, Contador made a decision. He might have known Schleck had a mechanical problem, but he didn’t see Schleck off his bike, wrestling with his chain the way the television audience did.
5. No rules were broken.
The unwritten code of waiting for the maillot jaune is chivalrous, but it’s also vague. No one waited for maillot jaune Slyvain Chavanel when he flatted on the cobblestones of stage 3 — or Lance Armstrong, for that matter. Though he wasn’t leading the race, Schleck’s situation on stage 15 was reminiscent of Cadel Evans’ crisis moment when he flatted out of a select group on a climb during last year’s Vuelta a España. Punctures, crashes and mechanicals are part of racing. If Schleck weren’t in the maillot jaune, we wouldn’t be having this debate.
On Monday night Contador posted a video online, apologizing to fans, and to Schleck, admitting that perhaps he was wrong, and that fair play is important to him.
“The race was on, and maybe I made a mistake,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He didn’t say anything, however, about giving back the maillot jaune. And he doesn’t need to. What is most important to remember is that a bike race — particularly the most difficult bike race in the world — is battle. Contador saw an opportunity to take time on Schleck, to win the battle, and he did just that.
No matter how angry Schleck may be, no matter how much “anger is in his belly,” Contador will likely win this Tour de France. He was already sitting in a better position than Schleck heading into the Tourmalet summit finish on stage 17, with Schleck needing to take significant time before stage 19’s 52km time trial. Now all Contador has to do is mark Schleck on the Tourmalet and ride a conservative time trial, and he’s won his third Tour.
I hope I’m wrong. I’d like to see Schleck win it. That would be one for the ages, and make for one hell of a story. But if I were a betting man, I’d slide my stack on Contador.
If Contador wins the Tour by more than 39 seconds, this polemica will all be a moot point. If he wins by less than 39 seconds, rightfully or not, his Tour win will always be stained by Monday’s “Chain of Events.”
Either way, only Contador can decide if he should have waited or not. And either way, it doesn’t make him a villain.