Three kilometres before the summit of the Port de Balès, a hors catégorie col in the Pyrenees, Andy Schleck went on the attack.
It was the final climb of the fifteenth stage of the 2010 Tour, and the man wearing the yellow jersey wanted to extend his overall lead over Samuel Sánchez, Denis Menchov, and Alberto Contador especially. The reigning Spanish champion had a deficit of just 31 seconds. The Luxembourger’s attack was impressive; his shifting was not. As his lead over the others stretched out to a few dozen metres, Schleck fumbled a gear change.
By the time he’d set his foot down on the pavement to try to remount his chain, Contador had thundered past with Menchov and Sánchez on his wheel. The muck-up with his bike cost Schleck around 30 seconds. Impressively, he managed to pull almost half of that back by the top of the climb, but the trio in front took off on a furious descent, lead by Sánchez, and Schleck couldn’t make up the difference. By the finish, he’d lost 39 seconds. Contador was the new leader of the Tour, eight seconds ahead of Schleck.
On the podium, Contador was booed by the crowd. Backstage, Schleck lit into him too. Later that day, the Luxembourger said he’d have never taken advantage of such a situation. Contador tied himself in knots trying to explain himself, saying he hadn’t seen what had happened, although he did offer an apology.
“It’s nonsense,” Henk Lubberding, the Dutchman who finished the Tour 11 times, said. “Contador didn’t have to wait. A professional should know how to shift. Both Andy and his brother Frank are hopeless at it. It’s a shame.”
Leon van Bon, winner of two stages of the Tour, had no sympathy for the younger Schleck either. “Knowing how your bike works and being able to stay on it are just parts of the sport. Contador had something to race for. He had Tour victory in his sights.”
Most of the riders involved in the 2010 race shared the same sentiment. “Why wait if nobody crashed?” Michael Barry of Team Sky asked. “It’s a race,” Ag2R’s Nicholas Roche added.
The Spaniard, who would go on to claim the victory in Paris, until clenbuterol was found in his blood and he had to watch the yellow jersey be passed on to Schleck, had another excuse. He was in a battle with Sánchez and Menchov, who were third and fourth in the overall standings at the time and weren’t interested in having Schleck rejoin them either. For all three riders, ambition trumped compassion.
Schleck’s indignation was blinkered. In the first week of the Tour, he’d asked his super-domestique Fabian Cancellara to accelerate when his brother Frank slid out on the cobbles and took out half the peloton. Many favourites missed the split caused by that crash. CSC didn’t wait when the front-runner Lance Armstrong flatted either. And the day before that, while wearing the yellow jersey he’d won in the prologue, Cancellara had insisted that the peloton slow down, after both Schlecks crashed on a wet and slippery descent near Spa. It was a gambit disguised as a show of solidarity. To a racer, nothing is out of bounds.
“Ha!” Van Bon said. “It’s actually very simple. Your own interests come first, then those of your team, and only then do you consider the interests of others.”
He gave a breakaway of five as an example. If the gap to the peloton is large enough and one of the riders in the break gets a flat, the others will very likely wait for him, but not if it is the strongest or weakest rider. The others are better off without those two, so they’ll carry on and won’t look back. ‘You don’t attack the yellow jersey or another significant rival when he’s down,’ the unwritten rule is said to go, but it’s precisely at the top of the GC where profiting from the bad luck of others matters most. Jacques Anquetil and his fellow hopefuls knew how hard they had to ride when Raymond Poulidor was forced to stop and wait for a new wheel in 1964. He lost two and a half minutes to Anquetil that day. At the race’s finish in Paris, he was just 55 seconds behind. Or consider 1987, when the maillot jaune Jean-François had problems with his chain and Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado immediately stood on the pedals to accelerate. Delgado won the stage. Roche secured the yellow.
“It’s a grey area,” Lubberding said. “Because the circumstances are always different, there’s no hard and fast rule.” He himself never wanted to unwrap any gifts handed to him as a result of others’ misfortunes, certainly not when there was a crash caused by outside factors, such as when a fan was leaning too far out onto the road, or a dog ran into the peloton, or an oil slick took out half the field, or tacks were strewn on the parcours, as was the case in 2012. That didn’t have anything to do with ability; it was pure bad luck. He wouldn’t have kept going. The yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins was right to call for the peloton to wait that day.
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On the piss
In the 2016 Tour, the race leader Chris Froome also used, or abused, the authority granted to him for wearing the leader’s jersey, when his domestiques Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, and Geraint Thomas slid out in a corner. Froome was seen at the front of the peloton talking to Bauke Mollema and others. The man in the yellow jersey then dropped back and stopped by the side of the road. Soon, he was chasing back to the front of the peloton with his teammates in tow, while the riders in front dilly-dallied. Van Bon and Lubberding could only shake their heads when they saw the incident. The peloton’s listlessness was too much, they thought. On the other hand, if there was nothing to gain — neither a stage win or the overall victory — why would the riders go out of their way to piss Team Sky off? They have to face them all year, and bike racers have memories like elephants.
“Gerrie Knetemann would have called bullshit right there,” Lubberding said. “He’d have said, Wait? Hell no. A race is a race.” Knetemann, who won the rainbow jersey in 1978, is unwavering in his opinion. In 1983, he crashed into a parked car during the Dwars door België and broke his arm, shinbone, and knee, and had a tendon in his wrist sliced in two. With arterial bleeding, he was more dead than alive. The Belgian rider, Rudy Dhaenens hit the brakes and administered first-aid. “That was really good of him,” Knetemann said, “but I’d have never stopped myself.”
Lubberding and Knetemann were sad to see their countryman Steven Kruijswijk crash on the descent of the Colle del’Agnello during the 2016 Giro while wearing the pink jersey, but if they’d been in Vicenzo Nibali’s position, they’d have done exactly what he did — press on. As Lubberding said, “It wasn’t some little criterium. It was the Giro. Other rules apply in the Grand Tours.” A racer shouldn’t descend faster than he’s capable of, Van Bon added. “You always have to match your speed to your abilities.”
The complexity of cycling’s unwritten rules came to the fore during the 2003 Tour too, when the GC leader Lance Armstrong caught his handlebars on a protruding handbag during the climb of Luz-Ardiden and hit the asphalt. His biggest rival, Jan Ullrich, who was just seven seconds back in the classification at the time, decided not to exploit Armstrong’s misfortune. He didn’t stop but he did slow significantly. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, the American didn’t realize what was happening. He reeled back the lackadaisical German and shot straight past him to win the stage and the Tour. “I have never in my life attacked someone who’s crashed. That’s not the way I race,” Ullrich said afterwards. If he’d had the same attitude as Contador, Roche, Anquetil, Armstrong, or Knetteman, Ullrich would surely have won the Tour more often than the once in 1997.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.