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.

>Lance is Back!


Will Lance Armstrong win the 2009 Tour de France? Probably not. He’s 37 years old and out of the sport for four years, and there is lots of young talent that has come along since his last tour. He’s not even the team leader of his own team, Astana; that would be Alberto Contador, a talented young Spaniard who won the Tour in 2007, and most likely would have won again last year if Astana hadn’t been banned. So he went to Spain and Italy and won their tours. It is arguable that Lance isn’t even the second best rider on his own team, if you think as highly as I do of American Levi Leipheimer.
So the Lance Armstrong comeback was a feel-good story, he’s riding for cancer and not getting paid, but it was good to see him in a Tour again on Saturday’s opening time trial. He finished a respectable tenth place and looked in good form, but Contador was second, and three other Astana riders came in ahead of Lance, so there it is.
But wait! In today’s stage, a flat ride along the Mediterranean, things suddenly got exciting. These early flat stages are showcases for the sprinters, and unless you get a successful breakaway (hard to do) they unfold pretty much according to script. But in the high winds of today’s stage the talent-rich Columbia team managed to send several riders ahead at a bend in the road and open up a gap. Fabian Cancellara, wearing the Yellow jersey, alertly made the jump, along with a number of other riders, and, yes, Lance Armstrong, reminding us that Lance wasn’t just the strongest rider in his day, but one of the smartest.
This twenty-seven man break swallowed up an earlier four man break, and off they went. The remaining peloton, full of GC (general classification, the team leaders) rivals, was caught napping and never got itself organized to catch the break. Lance had two teammates with him, domestiques Heimar Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovych (but not Contador), and they all worked with Team Columbia and others to keep the main pack at bay. At the end of the day Columbia’s rocket Mark Cavendish won the stage as expected, but the break group had put forty seconds into the main pack.
Lance is still 40 seconds behind Cancellara, but is now in third place overall, and with the team time trial tomorrow, and a strong Astana team, could find himself in the yellow jersey tomorrow. And as pundit Bob Barsanti just wrote on my Facebook wall, “Wouldn’t that just be a floater in the Beaujolais!’

Bicycle Touring in the Berkshires

It’s that time of year again when the ice is off the road, the bikes come out of the garage and we pull on our cycling shorts to find that once again they have shrunk over the winter. Here in the Berkshire Hills we have an active cycling club called the Berkshire Cycling Association, which organizes and sponsors a number of events, from road and mountain bike races to time trials.

For those who prefer not to go so fast there is a also series of weekly touring rides beginning this week and continuing into September. The oldest of these rides is the venerable Thursday Night Ride, which has helped many a new rider to learn how to ride in a group. Ably led by Shaun Weigand the ride attracts 20 to 35 riders on any given Thursday night. The rides begin in different locations and over the course of the season cover most of Berkshire County, with an occasional foray into adjacent Vermont, New York, or Connecticut.

A newer and smaller touring ride that meets during the day is the Wednesday Morning Ride, which regularly attracts about 15 riders. This ride, which I help to found four years ago and led for three years, is now led by Margie Safran.

Both rides are pretty leisurely, with friendly, helpful people. One needs a safe working bike, a helmet (always!), and knowledge of how your bike works, the highway laws, and how to ride safely on the road. (Photo above from left: R.Floyd, Marge Cohan, and John Yuill in front of the Monterey Genreral Store)

Spring Comes Slowly to the Berkshire Hills

I believe that spring will finally come to my corner of the world because two weeks ago I was down in Princeton (about three hours south of here) and saw green lawns, apple blossoms, and tulips. To use the language of Christian eschatology, I wait in hope for the future to break into the present.

Here in the Berkshires we must wait until early May for real spring to arrive. Later in the summer when the city dwellers descend on us for our cool nights and lovely days we are thankful for our geography, but this time of year we experience first hand T. S. Eliot’s observation that “April is the cruelest month.” (The Wasteland, 1922)

But here and there I spy glimpses of things to come. I have some crocuses (croci?) popping up around the edges of my house, and my lawn shows hints of green and begs to be raked. The days grow longer and each one, if closely observed, yields signs and portents. I recently read the children’s classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and though it was the dead of winter, shared in her rich descriptions of the garden’s daily changes.

So on a warmer sunny day this week I climbed on my bike for the first time in 2009 and hit the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail. I had to take the snowshoes out of my trunk to make room for my bike bag and floor pump, surely another sign of the changing season. It was a bit chilly alongside Cheshire Lake, but after all, the ice has been out of the lake for only a few weeks. There was no ice on the trail, but still a few stubborn chunks clinging to the shady cliffs alongside the Hoosic River at Cheshire Harbor, and some remaining big sandy piles of snow in the parking lot of the Berkshire Mall near the head of the trail.

The Canadian geese were in abundance, some lazy ones now never migrate and have become pests and foul the trail. We had one white swan for a few days several weeks ago but he or she is gone now.

Over the years of riding the trail I have seen a black bear, deer, snapping turtles as big as a lawn mower, and numerous other animals and birds. This week, though, I didn’t see much besides the geese and ducks.

 The buds are getting red, and here and there some begin to show the gold that precedes the green, reminding me of Robert Frost’s little poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

It’s been a long, cold winter here with lots of snow. But spring is slowly coming to the Berkshire and soon we can share in Solomon’s song:

“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth:
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.”
(Song of Solomon< 2)

Mind Your Head

Natasha’s Richardson’s shocking death from a head injury last week after what seemed like a minor fall on the bunny slope of a Canadian ski resort highlights how fragile our brains can be.

I have a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that I acquired in a catastrophic cycling accident in 2000, which is why I am the retired pastor who ruminates and not the still active pastor too busy to blog.  I wrote a memoir of my crash called “I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail.”

Unlike Richardson I was wearing a helmet when I fell, which may have saved my life.  Dr. Robert Cantu, a director of the Neurological Sports injury Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, is quoted in yesterday’s New York Times, “Had she (Richardson) been wearing a helmet she would have been alive.”   Cantu said,  “Helmets, although they do not prevent concussion, have a virtually 100 percent record of preventing skull fractures.”

So wearing a helmet is a good investment in your health.  I ride on our local bike path, the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail , quite frequently, and am amazed at how many people ride bicycles without wearing a helmet.  Here in Massachusetts there is  a law that children must wear them, but I see mom and dad helmet-less while the kids wear them, which sends the message that helmets are for kids.  It’s like the parents who drop the kids off for Sunday School but don’t go to church.  Children get the message.  And people have told me they don’t wear one because they are only on the trail and don’t go very fast,  but it only takes a minor bump to do the damage, as Richardson’s injury shows.

And though a helmet can’t guarantee that you won’t sustain a TBI, it will likely lessen the impact and resulting damage and disability.  We are seeing thousands of cases of TBI from troops returning from Iraq, and the human and social cost of these injuries is profound.  TBIs can cause memory loss, focus and attention issues, personality changes, chronic tiredness, severe depression, inability to multitask, sleep problems, and many social problems.   A psychiatrist who fell from a ladder and hit his head had to quit his practice.  He told me that having a brain injury is “an exercise in patience and humility.”  I have found that to be true.

So do what you can to avoid getting a TBI.  If you ride or ski or participate in any sport where your head is at risk, do yourself and those you love a favor.  Wear a helmet.