Class Act

One of cycling’s central tenets is that it is a gentlemens’ sport. Not that it is a sport plied by well-heeled graduates of the English public schools, but rather that even in sport we are meant to rise above the most base animal instincts that guide our sense of survival and success.

As racers, we are taught not to attack in the feed zone. Periodically, some bastard does it, and in my experience, the group’s opinion of that rider is never quite the same afterward. Similarly, we’re taught not to attack following a crash or when other riders need a nature break. All this goes doubly during stage races and trebly if it involves the race leader.

It’s fair to say that most cycling fans consider Fabian Cancellara the most unfairly persecuted rider in cycling. As the one rider so far accused of “motorized doping”—perhaps the silliest possible name to describe the silliest possible idea in cycling currently—Cancellara’s remarkable wins at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix have been surreally—and unfairly—denigrated thanks to Italian TV commentator Davide Cassani.

One wonders if Cassani is on the payroll of an e-bike company.

In stage 2, following a crash that decked almost every favorite, Cancellara went to race official Jean-Francois Pescheux and announced that the riders had elected not to sprint the finish.

It would be easy to be cynical and say that Cancellara was simply acting in his team co-leaders’ best interests. The Schleck brothers had been gapped off the yellow jersey group and were chasing to rejoin and by shutting down the race, the Schlecks were able to rejoin the lead group. However, Cancellara was in the yellow jersey and no one gives up the jersey out of a need to be decent. Well, amost no one.

Cancellara did exactly that.

“It was the right thing to do to wait so everybody comes together to the finish line together,” Cancellara told the AFP.

“When you have everybody on the ground and people five minutes behind because they can’t find their bike then it’s only normal.

“I think fairness comes before being selfish.”

The most significant victory of the Tour de France may already have been decided. The moral victory has already gone to Cancellara. After all, we should remember a man who says, “There’s other things to think about than the yellow jersey.”

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. James

    Today was the damnedest thing I have ever seen. I have always liked and respected Fabian Cancellara and doubly so now. He is a class guy! Also, I was happy to see Sylvain Chavanel come out with the win as he is another class guy and has been my favorite in the peloton for some years. He races they way I like to see…out on the break trying for stage wins. It pleases me that he’s in yellow. Hopefully tomorrow there will be no rain on the pave sectors to create even more chaos. It has been quite a race so far, but not in a good way…

  2. sophrosune

    I think I should point out one of the unintended (or perhaps intended) consequence of this “gentlemanly” act is that it made a mockery of Chavenel’s 180km effort.

    Further, as one DS noted after this race nullification, perhaps we should just take the GC contender’s times before the pave sections of stage 3. Who knows they might fall off their bikes or break their bikes and we wouldn’t want that to actually count to their GC times.

    It’s a tricky business calling something a race and then deciding we should call time out and then time back in again. I remember as a child in playground games this was a favored way of cheating.

    You enter a race that has rules and has officials, you follow the rules and decisions of those officials. Cancellara was correct to sit up and wait for the Schleck brothers, but he is not an official of the race who can decide to nullify the race. It’s an act of a gentleman to sit up and wait for your rival after an unfortunate event or for your captains. But I find it less so to bully the rest of the peloton into following your decry.

  3. Warrick

    And, I meant to say, before I accidentally pressed ‘Enter’, that giving up a yellow jersey he would never have kept, to get his team-leader back into the group, is hardly a huge sacrifice. Would he have neutralised the race for Lance or Cadel?

  4. Jim

    @sophrosune – where you see capitulation, I see a group of men who have to live and work together seven hours a day for the next three weeks negotiating a difficult situation in an honorable manner. The GC contenders all showed they’re interested in beating each other straight up – may the best legs win. They didn’t seem interested in capitalizing on what appeared to be a polluted road surface that caused nearly half the pack to eat pavement.

    As a racer, I’ve also had days where a race went pear shaped and we had a lot of blood on the road and multiple ambulances hauling away multiple racers on backboards. I’d rather be remembered on those days as a decent fellow who conferred with the other racers about how we’d restart, continue and finish safely and fairly, than a guy who ruthlessly attacked upon the restart. There’s something about compound fractures and seeing pools of blood on the road near that difficult turn that remind us that racing is a just part of our lives that and not the sole thing we will be judged on. In the end we should be able to view our participation in racing like any other part of our life, subject not only to the stopwatch but to moral judgment. Did we do our best? Were we decent and fair to others? Were we honorable in our dealings with others? Racing doesn’t build character, so much as reveal it. Despite the doping and petty rivalries (and the occasional feedzone and nature break attackers) the center mass of the peloton showed its character yesterday, and Cancellara in particular showed he was willing to sacrifice the yellow jersey to wait not only for his teammates, but for the many riders who would likely have been pushed out of the race by time limit had the pack gone all out. I suspect you have trouble viewing it this way because, like common sense, common decency is no longer particularly common and we tend not to recognize it.

  5. randomactsofcycling

    Hmmm, a part of me admires Cancellara’s actions but a bigger part of me is frustrated as Chavanel’s ride and stage win will always be remembered as the stage that was ‘neutralised’. I’m with Thor Hushovd on this one – there is more to the Tour than the GC contenders. There are three other jerseys out there too and a whole bunch of guys that may never win any of them.
    Of course it is the right thing to do, to wait after a crash. My biggest frustration lies with those who were against the decision to ‘neutralise’ and didn’t speak up at the time. Surely other riders could have been as outspoken as Cancellara, but with an opposing view. To me the whole thing seems a brilliant piece of Bjarne tactical thinking.

  6. Sophrosune

    @Jim Well, where does one begin when one has been accused of lacking common human decency. My point is that good intentions (if indeed they were, which randomactsofcycling suggests they may not have been with it being more tactical than chivalrous) often have unintended consequences (the road to hell is paved with good intentions).

    It was not Cancellara’s right to nullify the race. That is the decision that the race officials need to make. Petitions could have been made on the road by the DS’s and the riders to the officials to nullify the race. But until the officials make that decision it is a race. This was not a case where a rival went down and you sat up for a kilometer or two, this was a good 25+km of soft pedaling.

    Remember, Jim, that this was not universally an idea that was universally accepted by all the teams, with Cervelo and Milram being a couple of the notable objectors. I feel sorry for the riders who crashed out because of the oil-slicked roads, but I also feel bad for Chavenel who has been cheated out of a great victory. I guess I just lack common human decency.

  7. Touriste-Routier

    I think there are apples and oranges being mixed here.

    First I admire the gentlemanly code of professional racing, but the code doesn’t descend down into the amateur ranks, not that we should expect it to.

    Waiting for the majority of fallen riders was a sign of self sacrifice by a number of riders, and mutual respect for the gentlemanly code. However, once back together, there was no reason why the racing couldn’t resume, at least sprint it out; once the GC riders were secure, the hunt for the stage win and Maillot Vert should have resumed in one manner or another.

    I agree it was somewhat disrespectful to Chavanel, but it was also disrespectful to the points competition, disrespectful to the fans, and disrespectful to the sponsors. No one wants to see people hurt, but it is professional racing after all.

  8. Jim

    @ Sophrosone: I didn’t say that you lacked common decency, I said you didn’t recognize it because it isn’t common.

    80 to 100 riders went down (along with maybe some race motos) at 40 MPH. The pack never fully came back together, riders kept glomming onto the back as it rolled into the finish. A big chunk of the riders could have been driven out of the race had somebody dropped the hammer.

    It’s really easy for us to criticize the racers’ honor and courage and sense of what racing is meant to be, not having just crashed on a 40 MPH descent, and not having gone through 3 nasty pack crashes the day before, and not facing 18 more stages. I’ve gone down at that speed in races and frankly I’m grateful if I can pedal or limp back to the start/finish, and if I haven’t crapped my pants or fractured my skull. Pros do a great job of getting on their bike and staggering to the finish, but trying to ramp it up with half of them in that state? In addition to being merciless, it would have been dangerous.

  9. Dave 1949

    I missed the part where Cancellara “forced” or bullied everyone else into neutralizing the race. Any rider who wanted to or any team that wanted to could have taken off and raced. Anyone who did that of course would then have to face all his fellow pros for the rest of the race. One of the things they were showing with the neutralization was that they thought part of the course had been poorly chosen placing them all in jeopardy. This has been done before nd will continue to be done form time to time when the sponsors ask too much of the men trying to earn a living on the bikes. When you ride for fun on the weekends it is a different thing than getting back up on Monday and clocking in for another ride as a way to earn your living.

  10. sophrosune

    Jim, The extension of your logic is that they should have waited until every last rider was able to get back on the group. There were riders that finished some 18 minutes off the peloton, what of them? Shouldn’t the peloton have stopped and waited for the twenty minutes at the side of the road until they could join the group?

    I am not critizing some perceived lack of courage in the riders, I am suggesting that when you engage yourself in an enterprise, whatever it is, and it has rules and measures, you cheat not only others but yourself when you flagrantly disregard them.

    Again, I point it out that this occurred 25kms from the finish, when the group was together couldn’t they have at least contested the sprint finish?

    Like I said, it’s a tricky business deciding when to race and when not to race. I’m not sure I entirely agreed with Cancellara’s rather self-righteous declaration to everyone that they couldn’t race any more.

    You know, every Sunday I go on a group ride and there’s always one or two guys that just can’t keep the pace. Typically, at some point, we all stop and wait for them to catch up or the club car brings them up to the rest of us. No one seems to mind, least of all me. But what always irks me is the self-righteous bullies who decide they have been given the authority to determine when we have to stop and wait. They are usually ignored because we always know by instinct where the stopping spot should be but these guys just want to be the ones who make the rules.

    1. Author

      Everyone: We can disagree about the significance and motives behind Cancellara’s actions, but let’s not get personal about this.

      Jim: You’ve got no business telling Sophrosune what he can or can’t recognize.

      I can respect that some of you disagree with my reading of the race. That said, there’s nothing to suggest that Cancellara bullied anyone. It’s true that there’s more to the Tour than just the GC, but it is the race’s single greatest priority. My read is that with so many GC leaders getting caught in crashes that it wasn’t unreasonable to shut things down until some of the less consequential riders calm down (or get tired). The decision not to sprint seemed to me as a response to the insanity of the previous day, a not unreasonable one at that. Jurgen Roelandts running into Lloyd Mondory from behind was pinheaded. Here’s a question for everyone: At what point should the sprinters’ quest for the green jersey be allowed to completely trump the safety of the other riders, GC faves especially? Does anyone other than Roelandts really think he has a shot at taking the green jersey to Paris? He endangered a great many riders in a quest for something had yet to earn.

      Did the decision of the racers not to sprint serve as an insult to Chavanel? I don’t see it that way. The circumstance was odd, but he got away under normal racing and stayed away. It’s still a win.

      Also I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Cancellara’s willingness to give up the yellow jersey was inconsequential. We have 100 years of history of guys killing themselves just for another day in yellow, even when the team leader is waiting in the wings for a lesser light to relinquish the jersey.

      Sophrosune: Nothing I’ve seen suggests that the shutdown of the peloton was Cancellara’s decision. I don’t see how he alone could have imposed his will on the entire peloton. The riders agreed en masse to ride piano. I think it was a little classless for some riders to bitch about it afterward. I never saw nine Saxo Bank riders lined up across the road, so a team could have gone to the front and started riding. It may not have been popular, but it would have been possible.

  11. Robot

    I find myself really ambivalent about this one. I would have liked for Cancellara, et. al. to let the peloton come back together and then get on with it. And while I don’t think he bullied anyone, I do think, once he spoke with Jean-Francois Pescheux, it would have looked really bad to race on anyway. Not to mention the fact that Saxo benefited the most from the neutralization with the Schleck’s furthest off the back.

    Riders complained that the route was bad, but they’d all seen it in advance. Up until yesterday, they were all hemming and hawing about Stage 3 and the cobbles. No one, that I read, had mentioned the Stockeau, so I find the retroactive complaints a stretch.

    I don’t want to see 100 riders down on the road, BUT this is the Tour de France. It’s not all about the GC or any one particular team/rider.

    On top of that, Cancellara must have known that he would be killing it today on the cobbles, and that there was a good chance he’d tow Andy Schleck back into the race. As it turns out, Saxo was the biggest beneficiary of the whole saga, so now he looks less classy and more shrewd to me. Certainly, there was no hold up today with guys going down on the pavé left and right.

    Saxo was even able to give Hushovd the stage today (not that he wouldn’t have crushed the sprint on his own), which probably makes him feel a bit better about yesterday’s business. If I was more cynical, I might even suggest that a Saxo/Cervelo alliance goes some way to breaking the Astana/Shack paradigm and turning this into a different sort of race.

    Now, today

  12. jza

    If Cancellara stopped in the middle of the road, pulled down his pants and took a shit, half the cycling world would have gotten on their blogs to type about the classiest way a real strong man could take a shit. Vs. would yammer on about carrying on the tradition of great cyclists shitting in the road and we’d have hours of infomercials about how Specialized bikes minimize shit resistance. He’s just a good bike racer, leave it at that.

    His little ‘protest’ was pure gamesmanship. Didn’t want the Schlecks to lose time. And there were enough teams who also benefited, so it worked.

    The big losers were Cadel and Thor. They should have punched it and not looked back. Don’t wanna win a tour Cadel? OK, then don’t take time when it’s there. When was the last time anyone waited for you? Oh….that’s right NEVER.
    They got lucky on the cobbles, but you can’t count on second chances.

    Remember the Giro? Day after day of brutal racing on dicey courses in terrible weather. Wasn’t that the Greatest Grand Tour in recent memory? Now it’s a ‘classy’ parade in to the finish. Boooooorrring. Cheers to Maxime Bouet for gettin that wheel out there, results last. Peloton politics don’t count tomorrow.

  13. Souleur

    There is no doubt that Cancellara is one of the classiest men in the peloton, period. Was it sacrificial in the malliot-juane protesting the route, absolutely. He gave it at the end of the day, and he knew he would. And indeed, that was his job this day. He, afterall, is the domestique to his GC rider, Andy.

    Andy Schleck was the luckiest man I have seen in a very long time. He was the forunate benefactor of his super domestique having donned the malliot-juane and being then enabled to carry out such orders at his leisure, to protest and hold the peloton until he said resume. Otherwise…and this is critical…Andy would have been dropped like a bad smell, like Mayo on the cobbles but a few years ago (04), like others have had happen as well and the peloton rides on…racing. Lance held up for Ulrich, Ulrich however may not have returned that favor.

    Andy is lucky and if he goes on to win, he better pay out on the Champs-Ellysees.

    There is a hierarchy in the peloton, steeped in tradition and that is one that I am glad we have. One must honor it, or you will be dishonored.

    Now, for some that say ‘that isn’t racing’….well, after stage 2, there is plenty of racing still left and the men in the peloton realize this. And indeed that is fair and this keeps the malliot-juane above reproach.

  14. Henry

    I agree that Cancellara is a class act but if Andy was in the lead group Saxo would have raced. Cancellara not only sacrificed his yellow for Andy he leveraged his position to get the results neutralized. I’m not so sure he would have done the same if it just benefited AC or LA or the other GC contenders.

  15. sophrosune

    Robot, About today. I would like to note that contrary to Velonews’ reporting, I don’t think Contador was angry about Vinokurov riding away from him. He looked down at his wheels and cursed “pinchado”, flat tire.

  16. Robot

    I can’t imagine Contador was mad at Vino. What would be the point of holding up with so little distance still to cover? If Contador crashes out (it’s the thing to do it seems) then Astana will need Vino as highly placed as possible.

    I also don’t think yesterday’s neutralization should be characterized as a protest. It was more of a sportsmen’s agreement, no?

    1. Author

      I can easily imagine Contador felt frustration on top of frustration. Because every second counts, having a teammate sit up just a bit to help nurse you to the finish as a tire softens could be important. On top of that, given that Contador is supposed to be the unquestioned leader of Astana, he could be acutely sensitive to anything done to preserve a teammate’s chances. Besides, aren’t you going to wonder about a teammate incapable of looking around to see if you’re still on?

      As to yesterday’s stage, I agree that it appeared to be a sportsmen’s agreement.

  17. Sophrosune

    It’s no doubt delicious to think that Vinokurov stabbed Contador in the back, but from watching the race, I don’t think it went down that way. In the last 10 kms Vinokurov was driving the train and Contador was trailing at the tail of the group and then Vinokurov would back off and this continued along until I would say the last 1500 meters when Vinokurov trailed off again and appeared to be heading back towards Contador. The next shot we see of the group, Vinokurov is driving the group to the line and Contador has lost the wheel. A possible and likely scenario is that Vinokurov went back, asked Contador how he was and they agreed that Vinokurov should drive to the line and if Contador could hold it all the better.

  18. Souleur

    Contador said in the last few k he had a rear brake rubbing, and that is what he was shaking his fist at as he crossed the line.

    Vino was pulling like a rabid dog in the end, foaming at the mouth, doing a superb job as a domestique, and by all appearances did not realize he dropped Contador. Really, in the heat of a battle such as this, one cannot blame Vino for looking back. In a race one should not look back unless your absolutely spent and hoping not to be caught.

  19. Robot

    What I don’t get is why AC wouldn’t have just reached down and unhooked the brake. Especially as it was the rear and the peloton had exploded by that point. Most of the braking force is in the front brake. I regularly (when a wheel goes unexpectedly out of true) disconnect a rubbing brake to ease the pain. Can someone educate me on this?

  20. sophrosune

    All I would add, Robot, is that the accounts I read had Contador complaining of a broken spoke in his front wheel, not his rear wheel.

  21. Robot

    @sophrosune – Ah. Yes. Well, you wouldn’t want to unhook your front brake on the tail end of a Tour stage probably. Perhaps I’m just more reckless than el Pistolero.

  22. Missnmarlathadbehot

    Contador said he pulled his men off the chase as soon as he heard Andy Schleck was behind. “As I hoped he’d do for me,” he said. By all accounts it was a majority decision, with the yellow shirt having one and a half votes. Easy, folks. They are sporting legends, most of them with more class than appears in race photos.
    It’s like the grumblings about the descents in last year’s Giro: If you make the race so a rider can hit 70 mph, somebody surely will go that fast, to wit, the only effect is that the other riders have to take that risk and chase them down. LA was a voice in that crowd, too. I believe the majority decided it was a good time to act pragmatically and resist any effort that might further require any other riders take unnecessary risks.

  23. Sean

    Padraig: been mulling this one over for the past couple of days – I think yesterday’s stage points out that a race is just that: a race.

    If Cancellara truly believes what he said, he should have sat up, stopped pounding away for his, Andy & Saxo’s benefit. Interesting how morality & class are out the window when the shoe is on the other foot.

  24. sophrosune

    Perhaps he did and it still rubbed a bit. The broken spoke happened supposedly 30km out from the finish. It seemed he added a flat to the tales of woe about 1km from the finish.

  25. Sir Cumference

    What we witnessed in this stage is not about Cancellara, Chavanel or any other rider in the peloton. It had nothing to do with CG contenders verses sprinters. It has nothing to do with who crashed when or where; or who was within 3km and got the same time. It is more about history, tradition and the essence of being a man.

    There is an old movie about WWI pilots called the “Blue Max”. At one point early in the movie the young upstart pilot asks one of the veteran pilots about his 18 victories. The veteran replies that squadron rule number one is that gentlemen don’t talk about their military achievements. The young pilot gives this some thought and then asks if the veteran had any objection to answering how long it took to achieve the 18 victories. The veteran responds that the young pilot’s question falls under the same rule. Exasperated, the young pilot asks how many rules are there. The veteran replies that he has no idea; none have ever been written down.

    Too many men think being a man is being able to follow or use rules that have been written down by a bunch of lawyers. They flounder and don’t make any decisions because their thought process is based on the fear that someone will disapprove. Cancellara’s decision is not important; we can debate that forever. The fact that he made a decision is important. He had a sense of what was expected of him when he put on the yellow jersey. The wearer of the yellow jersey is special. However, there are no rules, guidelines or checklists for those who wear the yellow jersey. Cancellara made a decision which I believe was based on responsibility, history and above all doing what he thought was the right thing to do. That is why he is a gentleman and has my respect.

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