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Controversy in the Tour de France

Once again, there is controversy surrounding the Tour de France. However, this time it has nothing to do with failed drugs tests – strangely this seems to have been taken far more seriously than that. This is a breach of cycling etiquette. It is strange how this appears to be such a major issue, but should it really be.

As the group including the majority of the leading contenders in the Général Classement – Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, Samuel Sánchez and Denis Menchov – approached the top of the Port de Bales, the final climb of the day, the controversial moment occurred. The yellow jersey of Andy Schleck suddenly launched himself into an attack, momentarily catching Alberto Contador and his rivals napping. He opened up a gap of around 20m before they responded. However, as he attacked, the chain came off the gear mechanism. Alberto Contador went past him and attacked on up the slope, followed by Sánchez and Menchov. At its maximum, the gap between Schleck and Contador up the slope was 40 seconds, but by the top, Schleck had closed to only 12 seconds. However, by the end of the descent, Contador had stretched the lead to 39 seconds, taking the Maillot Jeune by a mere 8 seconds.

So where does the controversy come into it? There is a general unwritten rule in cycling that you do not attack the Maillot Jeune wearer if he suffers a mechanical problem. In the words of Robbie Hunter, a former stage winner in the Tour de France, “in the peleton, if yellow has a problem, you wait, especially if it’s a person who can win the Tour. That’s how we race.” So, therein lies the controversy. Alberto Contador should not have attacked up the final stretch of the Port de Bales, and should have waited for Andy Schleck. However, how much can we really blame the reigning champion?

Some people have argued that Contador had no intentions of attacking until he saw the mechanical problem of Andy Schleck, then took advantage of his misfortune. Schleck himself certainly believes that, saying “my stomach is full of anger.” The local French crowd certainly agreed with the Luxembourger, booing Alberto Contador on the podium. Proponents of this theory will argue that this shows that Contador was seriously worried about Andy Schleck in the Général Classement. He saw his chance to give himself a better chance of wrapping up the Tour, and took it. This is linked with the argument that Schleck did indeed make up a lot of time on the final climb after the mechanical problem.

Supporters of Contador may point to the fact that as Schleck made up so much time, maybe Contador was not giving it 100% up the final section of the climb. It cannot be denied that he was driving hard on the descent with Sánchez and Menchov. However, once Sánchez and Menchov had gone with him on the original attack, he could not sit up and wait for Schleck, giving those two the opportunity to make up significant time. Schleck was able to sort the problem relatively quickly, but had it taken 2 or 3 minutes to solve, Sánchez and Menchov could have closed, almost to the point of taking the yellow jersey. Contador could not take that risk.

However, despite Andy Schleck’s anger about how Contador has retaken the jersey, it is interesting to look at the early stages in this year’s Tour. In Stage 2, the peleton had to slow up to wait for Andy Schleck after he suffered a problem. Schleck’s teammate, Fabian Cancellara, and Alberto Contador himself were the two men that drove the decision to wait. Maybe Contador had felt that he had already waited for Schleck once, that he shouldn’t have to wait every time.

The even more interesting stage is Stage 3, when Andy Schleck opened up a 1’13 gap on Alberto Contador. The reason that he was able to open up this gap was that Alberto Contador got held up behind the crash that took Andy Schleck’s elder brother, Frank, out of the race. Immediately after the crash, Schleck and Cancellara attacked, upping the pace, whilst Contador and the other favourites were all stuck behind the crash. By the same arguments, surely Andy Schleck should have waited there. In the words of Irish cyclist, Nicholas Roche, it may have been “classy to wait, but nobody waited for Contador on Stage 3, when he rode for 30km was a buckled rear wheel.”
The whole incident could have been prevented in the first place had Andy Schleck opted to use a 50g chainguard. However, Schleck made the choice to minimise weight by not employing this, and so it could be argued that Schleck should take some blame for this decision.

Contador has lost a lot of popularity with the fans, but many teammates and other cyclists are beginning to take a different view – that it is just one of those things that happens. It seems to depend how exactly you view the sport and the cycling etiquette. You don’t see the situation in Formula 1, where if a car has a mechanical problem, the leaders stop and wait for him to fix the problem and catch up. It is a strange concept, and whilst it is nice to see the race determined by who is the better rider, rather than mechanical problems, the true champions are determined to win at all costs. It is why great champions are often not the most popular.

It has the potential to make the next two stages, involving the legendary Col de Tourmalet, very interesting. Andy Schleck must go on the attack to try and distance Alberto Contador. If Contador is vulnerable in the mountains this year, Schleck has the ability to attack him repeatedly, and pull away. And if this is the case, he will prove himself to be the best this year. He has not given up hope yet – “The race is not finished and I want to take my revenge. I can end it like a champion.”

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