The Tour de France is, without doubt, one of the toughest sporting contests on the planet. Twenty days of cycling through a French summer, sometimes riding over roads better suited to four-wheel drives, as well as trekking over roads that mountain goats would avoid because they’re too steep.
The cyclists are a breed apart. Marginally too big to be jockeys, they are tough, tenacious, and fiercely committed to their team and their sport.
A few become household names for their accomplishments, others for their misdeeds. Most, however, spend their life in anonymity, known only to cycling insiders and the most dedicated of fans. They compete for titles that few have heard of and, if they’re lucky and exceptionally talented, they get to win one that everyone knows.
They ride in scorching heat and torrential rain at speeds sometimes approaching 100 km/h, protected only by a helmet and and a sheer covering of lycra. Losing skin, shedding blood and breaking bones are all part of the territory.
They are dogged competitors, neither asking for, or giving, any quarter.
But, there are rules.
Well, not so much rules, as conventions. Of course, there are plenty of rules too, but what really counts is the unspoken agreements out on the road. Part of it is sportsmanship, part of it is insurance policy and part of it is a desire to win against the competition on even terms.
Principal amongst these unspoken agreements is the convention to not attack when a competitor has had a fall or mechanical failure. It has come to the fore following Alberto Contador’s decision to take advantage of Andy Schleck’s chain issue.
Whenever these issues are raised, the story of Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich in 2001 and 2003 gets trotted out. Armstrong waited for Ullrich after he crashed in the 2001 Tour. Ullrich did the same when Armstrong was pulled off his bike by a spectator’s bag in 2003. For reference, Armstrong won both Tours, but they set the standard for sportsmanlike behaviour.
There is a school of thought that says that Contador should have backed off while Schleck got his problem sorted. Schleck was furious and when asked about how he would have reacted, he replied, “I wouldn’t have done it.”
Or would he?
Perhaps Schleck could cast his mind back to Stage three, when he was riding hard over the cobblestones towards Arenberg. Contador had a puncture, but Schleck didn’t back off to allow Contador to recover and eventually picked up a 1’13” advantage.
This, despite riders from all teams allowing a dazed and wounded Schleck to pick himself up from the side of the Stage two road and regain the four minutes that he had dropped in his crash. Contador was integral to that decision to allow his competitor to recover.
But the Tour de France is ultimately a race and to win it, and it takes a huge amount of skill, bucket loads of stamina, and a fair smattering of luck. If riders were to hold off attacks every time a competitor had an issue, they would never end up racing.
Contador was not alone when he attacked. He was surrounded by Sammy Sanchez, Denis Menchov, and Jurgen van den Broeck. None of them sat up, so why focus the scrutiny on Contador?
There is sufficient time left on the Tour for Schleck to win if he has the ability. Contador could similarly have a mechanical problem or fall, and then Schleck will have the opportunity to show us, from his perspective, what Contador should have done.
Or perhaps he’d just do what is necessary to win the race. After all, there are no trophies for moral victories.