This was a moment that has been coming for a long, long time. Were we to take a trip with Sherman in the Way Back Machine to visit any of the editions of the Tour de France prior to, say, the ascendancy of Ken Kesey, we’d find a peloton made up of working class men who operated by the Code of the Road, a set of rules granite hard, literal as a genie and without loophole.
These men shared work, bidons, pee-breaks and more. They preyed upon weaknesses of flesh and will, but never the machine. There’s plenty of footage showing guys waiting for everyone involved in a crash to get up and remount. Just like the start of your local group ride.
We remember these times because many of us think of these riders as honorable, as guys we’d like to ride with, a set of friends who will wait for us should we flat.
Lance Armstrong was asked why he waited for Jan Ullrich after he ran off the road during the 2001 Tour de France, endo-ing his way past a guardrail. While I can’t find his exact response, the point was that he didn’t want to win based on a crash, but rather by beating the athlete.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? A true champion wins on a level playing field so that their performance bears no asterisks, no footnotes, no abiding questions.
So should we call Contador names for squeezing by Schleck while pedaling out-of-the-saddle furiously?
This is a day that has been a long time coming. For all those of you who think I’ve had it in for Contador for more than a year, this is where I nearly give the guy a by. He’s simply a product of his time.
In 2001 Armstrong waited for Ullrich following his crash, but he was only able to sit up for so long before being passed by Virenque and others who would have gladly gutted Ullrich like a deer to climb another spot in the G.C. Faced with the prospect of giving up time to an opportunist like Virenque, Armstrong marked his rival but sat at the back of the group, waiting for Der Kaiser.
In 2003 Armstrong went down on the climb to Luz Ardiden after hooking his handlebar on the bag of a clueless spectator, taking Iban Mayo with him. Inexplicably, Ullrich kept riding. The leaders kept the bellows to the coals until Tyler Hamilton (yes, everyone’s next-to-most hated doper ever in the history of the known universe)—yes Tyler “Vanishing Twin” Hamilton, went to the front and gave the universal bro’ sign for chill—palm down waving … pretty much the same hand signal that some folks didn’t like coming from Fabian Cancellara a few stages back.
What’s significant isn’t that the riders waited for their brothers in arms on either of those occasions, but that they had to be reminded it was the right thing to do.
The evaporation of the Code of the Road within the peloton shouldn’t surprise us. The mob’s abandonment of its omerta and the obscene greed we read about on Wall Street are simply bellwethers of change in society.
Alberto Contador signaled last year that winning was far more important to him than listening to his team director. Those who dislike him will seize upon this and dislike him more. Those who see him as a great champion will see this as an example where a man with a destiny simply rose to the occasion.
Was there a double standard at work when Frank Shleck was left for dead on the cobbles in stage 3? Well, because Schleck was left by his teammates more than his competitors, it’s hard to make that charge. Regardless, one of the hallmarks of Paris-Roubaix (which served as the spiritual forefather to stage 3) is the reality that mechanicals are a legitimate and unavoidable challenge within the race. If you race Paris-Roubaix, you had better be prepared for the fact that if you flat, no rider contracted to another team will ease up by a single pedal stroke for you. Period. Tough.
Whether you agree with Contador’s counter attack or not, one troubling detail remains. In quotes to l’Equipe, the AFP and others, Contador claims not to have had any knowledge that Shleck was in trouble. The Saxo Bank rider was nearly at a standstill as Contador passed him, so he had to know something was up, even if he didn’t understand it was a mechanical. Comprehension and understanding aside, Contador was aware that something was wrong with Schleck and was curious enough to look around on more than one occasion. All we can derive from his looks back is that he was concerned that the gap wasn’t being shut down.
Contador’s denial strikes me as an issue of integrity. I’d rather he be honest and say, ‘Yeah when Schleck dropped his chain I knew I needed to hit it full gas. I was au bloc to the top of the climb to keep him from coming back.’
To say he didn’t know Schleck had a problem is BS. That may explain why Pistolero received as many boos as cheers at the podium ceremony. Again, don’t blame Contador; he’s a product of his time. Many schools of thought hold that all that matters is victory. It’s the same attitude that begets doping and books like The Prince, but the history of the Tour de France is full of guys who are remembered less for being jerks than winning.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International