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Contador ‘Chain-gate’ controversy as Voeckler wins

Stage 15: Pamiers > Bagnères-de-Luchon (187.5 km)

Thomas Voeckler captured the fifth stage victory by a French rider at this year’s Tour de France, launching an audacious solo break near the summit of the Port de Balès and safely negotiating the high-speed descent to claim the second Tour stage of his career. But the biggest story of the day unfolded behind him, as Alberto Contador controversially took advantage of a mechanical problem for Andy Schleck to claim the yellow jersey by just eight seconds.

Stage 15 winner Thomas Voeckler

An initial group of ten had escaped approaching the Col de Portet d’Aspet – where Fabio Casartelli tragically died in 1995 – at around the midway point of today’s stage, gaining an advantage of 10:45 at one point. The break began to fracture, however, as they began the final climb of the day, the hors catégorie Port de Balès, and French national champion Voeckler kicked decisively eight kilometres from the top. His surge dropped the remains of the escape, and he crested the summit alone and flew down the 21 km descent to the line in Bagnères-de-Luchon, 100 years to the day after it was the site of the Tour’s first-ever mountain stage finish.

As the yellow jersey group drew to within about three kilometres of the Balès summit, Schleck attacked from the middle of the group, catching Contador by surprise and pulling out a significant lead before the Spaniard could respond. But just as it started to look like he might snap the elastic and pull out a potentially Tour-winning lead, with Alexandre Vinokourov bridging the gap but Contador still trailing by several lengths, his chain jammed and he ground to a halt. The best part of two seconds later, Contador rode past and chose that moment to put in a big effort to speed away. By the time Schleck was under way again, Contador had gathered a small group around him including third and fourth-placed men Samuel Sánchez and Denis Menchov, and was off up the road. Working as a group, they were able to keep Schleck at arm’s length, eventually finishing 39 seconds ahead of the yellow jersey, giving Contador a slender eight-second lead overall.

New yellow jersey Alberto Contador

Did Contador step over a line today? Well, it’s difficult to say for sure. Tour etiquette is a convoluted affair of precedents and honour. On the one hand, if the yellow jersey suffers an unfortunate puncture or mechanical failure mid-stage, it is conventional for the other leaders to ease off and allow him to catch up again before renewing hostilities, as has happened on many prior occasions (not least on stage two this year or at Luz-Ardiden in 2003). On the other hand, though, no one expects anyone to stop if the problem occurs in the closing couple of kilometres of a critical mountain stage, say, or if he punctures four kilometres from the end of a flat-out sprint finish. But generally etiquette dictates that you do not seek to profit when the yellow jersey suffers some problem which is down to plain bad luck.

Today’s ‘Chain-gate’ incident was somewhere between the two extremes. It occurred nearly 25 km from the finish, but just three kilometres from the largest and final summit of the day. And Schleck had just attacked and gapped Contador, so a rush of blood on the Spaniard’s par was perhaps understandable. But not only did he not slow down, but he chose to initiate an attack too. Even that I could forgive, but to continue to ride at full race pace minutes later, with the adrenalin surge abating, when it became abundantly clear that Schleck had had a mechanical problem from the evidence of both his eyes and his radio earpiece, that to me was unacceptable. Contador clearly dervied significant profit from a situation where he was potentially about to lose significant chunks of time, and yet he continued regardless without attempting to rectify what was, in my eyes at least, a breach of racing etiquette. That is poor form, particularly coming from one of the sport’s great champions.

I should say at this point that there is no clear consensus on this one. Chris Boardman, a former wearer of the yellow jersey himself, acknowledged the moral grey area but ultimately backed Contador’s actions. Speaking on ITV, he said:

I’m struggling to decide which side of the fence I want to be on because it’s such a moral question: should he have waited, should he not. I think he was okay to keep racing – I think that’s all part and parcel, and we just can’t keep stopping for everything that happens to every rider.

Andreas Klöden, one of the most experienced men in the race, was far less equivocal. He stated on Twitter:

Bad luck for [Andy Schleck]. He had technical problems. Wasn’t a nice move from Alberto in this moment. But this is cycling now. 😦

Certainly, the crowd gathered at the finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon made their opinion clear, cheering Voeckler’s every step but roundly booing Contador on the podium as he was presented with the maillot jaune. It is the first time a yellow jersey wearer has been booed like this since Michael Rasumssen in 2007. (For entirely different reasons, that particular story did not end well.)

Voeckler has long delighted his home crowds with a never-say-die attacking style which has seen him as a regular fixture in breakaways at the Tour and once saw him spend 10 days in the yellow jersey (in 2004). His joy and pride at adding to his maiden Tour stage last year were obvious for all to see:

I am very proud of what I have done today. At an emotional level, what happened at the championships of France, when I came home first, was already enormous. But then to win with the tricolor on the shoulders a stage of the Tour de France is extraordinary. It is true that I have a special way to ride, but I do not attack for the sake of attacking. It’s an attack for the victory. And when you’re not the strongest in the world, you must try many times for it to work.

Immediately after the stage, Schleck was gracious about the man who had taken the yellow jersey off him in such questionable circumstances:

Things happen, and everything happens for a reason. People can say what they want but they also have to realise that Alberto was one of the guys who waited for me in Spa and that was really a great sign of fair play.

But later, after a quick exchange behind the podium with Contador, he seemed far less charitable:

We are only here to bike-race, let’s leave it at that. I asked him [behind the podium], how can you do that?

I would not have attacked. I’m really disappointed. My stomach is full of anger. I will take my revenge in the coming days.

Contador defended his actions, but his recollection of events did not entirely tally with the evidence of the TV footage:

I had already attacked and I didn’t see Andy had lost his chain. I wasn’t aware of it. It’s not the first time that someone lost a chain. These things happen in the race. It could happen to me tomorrow. We were all ahead. The others [Sánchez and Menchov] didn’t stop either.

Contador’s comments are, to say the least, somewhat disingenuous. Replays clearly show that Contador was some distance behind Schleck when his chain dropped, that he kicked hard once he was past Schleck, and that it was he rather than one of the others who made the decision to continue pressing, even after repeated looks over his shoulder (and, presumably, a discussion with the team car) would have confirmed that Schleck was nowhere in sight and had clearly suffered a mechanical fault.

His actions are perhaps defensible. His explanations afterwards, which are nothing if not economical with the truth, sound more like the attempted justifications of a man who reacted in desperate panic when presented with an unexpected opportunity to put some distance into the one rider he genuinely fears.

Schleck now has no option but to attack. He will certainly have to try on the Tourmalet on Thursday and, unlikely though it might be, he will probably have to try to gap Contador on the Aubisque tomorrow and hope he can stay away on the long, 60 km-plus run to the finish in Pau.

Now Contador is finally in yellow, there is no question that the advantage sits firmly with him. But he will no doubt wonder tonight whether the move that has put him within sight of overall victory was a price worth paying. He may end up winning the Tour for the third time, but he is further away from being accepted as the people’s champion than he has ever been. Unlike the plucky Voeckler.

Stage 15 result:

1. Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 4:44:51

2. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) +1:20

3. Aitor Pérez (Footon-Servetto) same time

4. Lloyd Mondory (Ag2R) +2:50

5. Luke Roberts (Milram) s/t

General classification (yellow jersey):

1. Alberto Contador (Astana) 72:50:42

2. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:08

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +2:00

4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +2:13

5. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +3:39

6. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +5:01

7. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +5:25

8. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +5:45

9. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +7:12

10. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +7:51

Selected others:

11. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +7:58

12. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) +8:19

23. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +17:44

31. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +40:31

Points classification (green jersey):

1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 187 pts

2. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 185

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 162

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 144

5. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 138

Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):

1. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 115 pts

2. Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) 92

3. Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 82

4. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 76

5. Alberto Contador (Astana) 76

Stage 16 preview:

Start & finish: Bagnères-de-Luchon > Pau

Distance & type: 199.5 km, high mountains

Prediction: This stage piles on relentless pressure from the start, with an immediate 11 km ascent of the Col de Peyresourde followed by the Col d’Aspin, and then the first ascent of the Col du Tourmalet (the highest point in this year’s Tour), 17.1 long kilometres at an average of 7.3%. From the top of the Tourmalet, there is stil the best part of 130 km to the finish, including the 29.2 km climb of the Col d’Aubisque. At least the riders will then be able to enjoy (if that is the right word) a gentle 60 km run down to the finish in Pau and the blessed relief of the final rest day.

A small group of climbers and GC riders could make a decisive break on the Tourmalet and stay clear until the finish. Saxo Bank and Schleck will almost certainly try to isolate Contador from his Astana teammates and set him up for multiple attacks on the Aubisque.

It is also likely to be a decisive day in the race for the polka dot jersey, with points aplenty available on the two first-category and two HC climbs.

For more reviews and informed comments about the Tour de France, please read any (or all!) of the following excellent blogs:

Marc’s sports blog

Todd Kinsey’s TDF blog

SportPH

Cyclingproject365

Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road

The social cyclist

Gonecycling

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

15 Responses to Contador ‘Chain-gate’ controversy as Voeckler wins

  1. While it’s nice to see sportsmanship in any sport, Tim, I think in the Tour the rule should be as in motor racing, equipment failure is part of the sport and the team is responsible for it, so just race on and see who ends up winning. That said, I don’t think Alberto and I will ever become great mates (even in the unlikely event that we should meet at a dinner party at Lance’s place). I’m for Schleck at the moment.

    • Tim says:

      LOL.Can you imagine the small talk between Lance and Bertie between courses? 🙂

      I’m inclined to agree with you about making the rules more black and white, but even when they’ve tried this in F1 there’s still quite a lot of confusion about the nuances of the rules.

      In the absence of rules, though, I am saddened by Contador’s actions. Of course I understand he wants to win. But as a fan, I want to see true champions in sport, not just great winners. Roger Federer springs readily to mind as an example. But maybe that’s just me wanting to have my cake and eat it.

  2. gonecycling says:

    Tricky one, I agree. Had Schleck managed to get the chain back on first go, he might have held on to yellow by a handful of seconds. If Contador had waited, they’d have finished together, and Schleck would have held on to yellow by half a minute. Either way, Schleck wouldn’t (on previous evidence) have had enough time in hand with the TT to come, and it would all have come down to the final climb of the Tourmalet anyway. I don’t think this incident will affect the overall result; just Contador’s winning margin. On that basis, you might then argue that he should have waited: it would have cost him nothing in the end, and he’d have scored a significant and much-needed PR coup. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen him ease off until he knew what Schleck’s position was; I’m old-fashioned that way. But what a great win for Voeckler, eh? Fantastic stuff.

    • Tim says:

      I’m similarly old-fashioned.

      My fear is now that today Andy will be goaded into trying something silly, burning himself out for tomorrow, which could potentially cost him second or even third place.

      Even without yesterday’s antics, I agree Contador was still odds-on favourite, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see what happened on the Tourmalet the moment Schleck managed to get even five bike lengths on Contador? But now, with the yellow on his back, the pressure on Contador would be much less – he can now afford to give up 30-45 seconds without it being a big deal.

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