Cycling and sportsmanship: Should Alberto have waited for Andy?


In today’s Stage 15 of the Tour de France, race leader Andy Schleck put a punishing attack on rival Alberto Contador on the final big mountain climb that Contador may or may not have been able to answer.  But we will never know, since Schleck dropped his chain and had to climb off his bike to put it back on. By the time he got moving he had lost precious seconds, and, it turned out, the leader’s yellow jersey, since Contador, who was behind him by 30 seconds, gained 38 before the stage was over and is now in yellow.

When the Spaniard climbed up on the podium to claim his yellow jersey he was booed by a number of the spectators, and speculation arose that he had unfairly taken advantage of a mechanical situation.  A visibly angry Schleck (right) seemed to think so during an interview after the stage, and this sets up a real shootout between the two young riders, who are riding at a level far above the rest of the peloton.

Even veteran British commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were divided over how to interpret the event. Liggett thought what Alberto did was cricket and Sherwen, not so much.

It is understandable to feel bad for Andy Schleck for losing his lead in such a way, but I hate to see shame fall on Alberto, a two-time Tour winner, who is, by all accounts, a decent guy.

Here are some of my ruminations.

  • First of all, I won’t say chains never fall of bikes when you haven’t made a awkward shift, but I can say it has never happened to me. Years ago when I starting time-trialing, I dropped  a chain in a 40 K trial with about  a mile to go. When I told Vince Conway, the veteran cyclist who ran the event, he described what I had done as an “illegal shift.”  Chances are Andy Schleck made an “illegal shift” that dropped his chain. That would put this in a different category than getting caught in a crash outside your control.
  • It is not apparent the Contador even knew exactly what happened. He saw Schleck falter and scrambled to take advantage over a formidable opponent.  This is, after all, a bike race.
  • The code on this kind of thing is vague and relies on a leader to enforce it.  I really don’t think Contador could have waited and made the rest of the riders fall in line. He isn’t the padron that Lance Armstrong or Eddy Merckx were in their heyday. It is unlikely that chasers Denis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez would have stopped.
  • Still,  waiting would have been a nice gesture befitting a champion, for Alberto would clearly have been risking his own chances to win the race if others hadn’t followed suit.

So, should Alberto have waited for Andy? Hard to say, but I would have liked to see it. As it is the rivalry should heat up. I expect Andy to attack on the remaining two Pyrenean mountain stages where he excels, which will make for high drama. Especially since there is a American named Lance Armstrong languishing in 32nd place, who would like to go home from his last Tour with something to show his fans and his sponsor. I expect he will try to win one of these stages as well, although it is hard to know how he can stay with these two amazing riders. Stayed tuned.

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