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The day sportsmanship died?

July 19th 2010

Sportsmanship in cycling

Dashed in a single pedal-stroke

Gone but not forgotten

R.I.P.

It is now nearly 24 hours since the now infamous ‘Chain-gate’ incident near the summit of the Port de Balès, where yellow jersey Andy Schleck looked to have successfully launched a potentially Tour-winning attack against defending champion Alberto Contador, only for his chain to slip. As Schleck struggled to repair the damage, the Spaniard flew past, accelerating to the maximum, securing just enough of an advantage to claim the maillot jaune for the first time this year.

Andy Schleck leads Alberto Contador on stage nine (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

The incident completely overshadowed a gallant stage win by French national champion Thomas Voeckler and, should Contador win the race by a narrow margin, threatens to dwarf the Tour itself.

Although I have made my feelings about Contador’s actions clear elsewhere on this blog, it is not my intention here to do a hatchet job on one of the most talented riders in my lifetime. Instead, let us examine the evidence and the precedents which govern the hazy moral etiquette and unwritten rules of this grand old sport, and I will leave you to judge for yourself whether these actually count for anything.

Let’s start by making two important points.

Firstly, Contador broke no rules, not even in cycling’s notoriously vague regulations. There is no sanction that can be applied for his perceived offences, merely the opprobrium of his peers and cycling fans alike.

And secondly, opinion is firmly divided among the cycling community, whether it is current pros, ex-pros or fans. It all depends how you interpret the shades of grey surrounding yesterday’s incident and, from reading comments online last night, it was also clear that individual viewpoints are strongly coloured by whether you are a Contador or a Schleck fan. Cycling is, after all, a passionate sport supported by passionate people with passionate opinions.

As I see it, there are four separate charges that can be levelled at Contador:

1. Hitting a man while he is down

2. Breaking ‘etiquette’ by profiting from the yellow jersey’s accidental loss

3. Bending the truth to the point of breaking

4. Bringing the sport (and himself) into disrepute

Okay, so now let’s look at the evidence and address each charge in turn.

Exhibit A: The video from yesterday’s stage

As Schleck’s chain drops, note that it is not Contador but Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov who is closing him down. In the head-on shot, Contador can be seen emerging from the centre of the group, already trailing by 30-40 metres.

Charge #1: Hitting a man while he is down

Contador rides straight past Schleck, and from the speed differential it must surely have been obvious to him that he was suffering from some kind of mechanical problem, even if he could not see the loose chain. However, he continues to accelerate, dragging other contenders such as Denis Menchov and Samuel Sánchez along with him.

Should he have stopped and waited? It is a grey area. Schleck had just attacked, so one interpretation is that the gloves were off at this point so a counter-attack from Contador was justifiable. And it is also true that, having just been caught on the hop, Contador would have experienced a huge surge of adrenaline, encouraging an emotional and impulsive reaction to danger. Some riders’ first instinct is for fair play; others prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. ‘El Pistolero’ has demonstrated many times in the past that he falls into the latter category, but that in itself is not a crime.

Even the respected and vastly experienced commentary duo of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen could not agree as to whether Contador was justified in attacking. Liggett sided with Contador, while Sherwen’s immediate reaction was:

This is when fair play has been thrown out of the window.

Let’s move on.

Charge #2: Breaking ‘etiquette’ by profiting from the yellow jersey’s accidental loss

Having made a snap decision to attack, Contador then had plenty of time – nearly three kilometres – to assess his actions more coolly before starting the tricky final descent. TV footage shows him looking over his shoulder several times, so he clearly knew Schleck was nowhere to be seen. And he would no doubt have been in contact with his team car – as would Menchov and Sánchez alongside him – to ascertain the situation. Ignorance is no defence – all three of them knew exactly what had happened, so while Contador, as the de facto leader, bears the lion’s share of any responsibility, the other two are hardly blameless either. Contador’s team too.

Mind you, Menchov was quick to absolve himself of any blame afterwards:

It did not depend on me. I [only] tried to follow Contador – the reaction of Contador decided it.

There was an opportunity to rectify any perceived ‘error’ or breach of etiquette, and it was not taken. Again, I should stress this is not a simple case of right or wrong, but cycling is a sport which prides itself on its honour and history, and precedent should be taken into account in such instances.

Exhibit B: Armstrong waits for Ullrich, 2001

Here, for instance, is Jan Ullrich exchanging tarmac road for grassy bank at around 80 kph on the descent of the Col de Peyresourde in 2001:

At this point of the 2001 Tour, Ullrich was just 23 seconds behind Lance Armstrong who, as Contador is now, was chasing his third win. The American could have pressed on and attacked to secure a decisive advantage over Ullrich; instead he slowed down to wait for the German and check he was okay, a sporting gesture which he later acknowledged:

He [Armstrong] asked me how I was and I said “fine”, so we went on.

Exhibit C: Ullrich waits for Armstrong, 2003

And here is the American’s famous crash and recovery on Luz-Ardiden in 2003 (as covered in more detail here) – watch from approximately 0:48:

At that point, Ullrich was a mere seven seconds behind Armstrong but he, along with others, also decided to wait.

Ullrich arguably lost the Tour that day with his singular act of sportsmanship. Armstrong subsequently caught and then rode away from him, gaining 48 seconds at the stage finish. Ullrich then crashed heavily on a roundabout pushing too hard in wet conditions as he sought to make up time in the final time trial. Overall, the final margin between the two riders in Paris was a mere 61 seconds.

After Luz-Ardiden, Ullrich stated that it had never crossed his mind to take advantage of Armstrong’s accident, and that if he was going to beat Armstrong he was going to do it in a straight fight, not through good fortune or any questionable means.

Ullrich’s career ultimately ended in disgrace (that’s a whole different story), but he will always be highly regarded by many for this one immensely honourable act which exemplified the sport’s etiquette while at the same time repaying a favour from two years before.

Contador had an opportunity yesterday to make a similarly munificent gesture, but chose not to. Ullrich lost what would have been his second Tour win through his generosity; Contador’s lack of the same may grant him his third. Does the end justify the means? You decide.

Charge #3: Bending the truth to the point of breaking

Here is what Contador had to say after yesterday’s stage:

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.

We’ve got a really good relationship and in the sporting sense we also get along well, especially if you see what we did on the road to Spa [in stage two when Schleck crashed and the peloton acted in solidarity and waited for him and other fallen riders]. In Spa, he had a big crash but today when I attacked it wasn’t because I knew he had problems.

As noted above, this does not seem to be entirely consistent with the TV footage, which shows Contador coming from some considerable distance behind Schleck, with a good view of what had happened.

Also, to say Sánchez and Menchov did not stop either is disingenuous in the extreme. As the defending champion and yellow jersey-elect, they would have deferred to him and effectively have been bound by any decision he made.

As for the stage to Spa, how much was Contador actually involved in the decision to slow down? TV and subsequent media coverage made it very clear this was a decision initiated by then yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara and Saxo Bank.

If Contador is bang to rights about anything, it is this. He stretched the truth in his post-stage remarks to the point where the elastic is virtually at breaking point.

Charge #4: Bringing the sport (and himself) into disrepute

Did Contador’s actions further sully the reputation of cycling? In certain quarters of the media, there is a palpable disappointment at the lack of doping scandals this year, and some mainstream outlets have only really focussed on the Tour when there has been a scandalous spin to put on proceedings: Mark Renshaw‘s head-butt, say, or Vinokourov winning a stage after he was thrown out of the Tour for blood doping.

Incidents such as yesterday’s do little to improve the sport’s standing in the eyes of the casual viewer, and even among fans it only serves to accentuate the caricature of Contador as a ruthless, selfish and classless rider who is a champion in fact, but not a true one in terms of how he goes about the act of winning.

Should that matter? Or is winning at all costs better than being a gallant loser (but a loser nonetheless). Certainly the French crowd in Bagnères-de-Luchon yesterday made their feelings towards Contador perfectly clear, booing him on the podium as he received the yellow jersey.

And even the normally mild-mannered Schleck was moved to express his anger:

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.

Exhibit D: Contador says sorry

Maybe it was this immediate and very public condemnation which led to Contador posting this contrite YouTube message last night:

In the video, he says:

The race was on and maybe I made a mistake. I’m sorry. In those moments all you think about is to go as fast as you can. I’m disappointed in the sense that for me fair play is very important, as I did in the stage to Spa. I don’t like things like what happened today. I’m not like that and I hope that the relationship I have with Andy can go back to being as good as it was before this happened.

So there you have it. Was Contador unsporting? And if so, does it really matter? Does he have a wider obligation to be an exemplar for the sport itself, or is his sole responsibility to himself?

Certainly Contador passed up a big opportunity to win hearts and minds yesterday, but how do you trade that off against the potential financial and sporting cost of losing the Tour in doing so? It’s not an easy equation to judge.

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

26 Responses to The day sportsmanship died?

  1. Steve says:

    Fascinating post, for someone like me who doesn’t have a clue about cycling/Tour de France. I think the ‘unwritten rules’ of sport help add so much character, colour, history and, let’s face it, controversy to sport. They are perhaps our last link with the amateur ethos or true sportsmanship. They also provide some truly memorable moments, such as the ones above. But in this modern age of sporting mass commerce, is there really room for morals in sport? I’d hope so, but I’m not always sure.

  2. Tim says:

    “But in this modern age of sporting mass commerce, is there really room for morals in sport? I’d hope so, but I’m not always sure.”

    It blackens my heart to have to admit it, but I feel much the same way.

  3. Whatever you think of Contador’s decision, it’s hard to justify his post-race conduct. Claiming not to have known of Schleck’s problems is somewhat laughable, and he would have been better off simply saying ‘it’s a race, I just took my chance’, or something to that effect. Raising his arms in victory on the podium also shows a misjudgement of the public mood.

    As for the race, sports and sportsmanship ought to go hand in hand, and though Contador is a great rider, he will find it hard to cement a legacy as a great champion now. It was his choice to make, but I think the public will find it an unsavoury one.

    • Tim says:

      “Somewhat laughable” is somewhat charitable – but somewhat easier to spell than my “somewhat disingenuous”. Guess what my word of the day is? I’m using it somewhat frequently … 🙂

  4. mrshev says:

    I have to agree with Beate on this one. Ultimately the other riders on the tour will look upon this as a breach of etiquette and he will face a certain amount of subtle admonishment – I wonder if some mechanical mishap were to affect him would the other contenders stop? I think they probably would.

    My own feeling is that the Ulrich vs Armstrong contest was always a fascinating battle made more so by the obvious respect they showed each other on the course and the sportsmanship they clearly adhered to. That made their races better, not worse. Winning at all costs would be to the detriment of what is the greatest cycle race on Earth.

    Had the pleasure of being raceside a few times and I have to say that it is some spectacle!

    • Tim says:

      My personal view is, I think, in line with both of you. What Contador did on the road was bad, but what he did after the stage was inexcusable as he sought every excuse to cover himself, to the extent of what appeared to be downright lies. Either hold up your hands and admit you made the wrong call, or defend your actions properly and say your focus is on winning. No more weasling, please!

  5. Excellent post Tim, and thanks especially for all the history. A big part of my love of the Tour comes from the etiquette and respect of the riders for each other. Not only the brilliant examples of Ullrich/Armstrong, but also things like the peloton allowing Fabio Casartelli’s team to ‘win’ the next stage together after his tragic death in 1992.

    (Setting aside the very tricky problem of drugs) TDF riders are a breed apart in their team and personal ethics and conduct. Never has this been more notable than in their efforts at Spa and on the Paris-Roubaix cobbles, in contrast to (say) the complaints of our own esteemed national football team.

    Every day there are examples of individual performance way beyond those seen at The World Cup: Shleck’s recovery yesterday and his measured words at the finish; Cavendish finding his form to win stages after a terrible first few days, even without Renshaw; Chavanel and Vinokourov’s continued aggression and positive riding.

    In respect to yesterday, I believe Contador in that his INITIAL attack was a response to Shleck’s attack MORE than to his problem. However, he had ample time to reconsider his approach after that, and I believe his hotel-room apology is testament to the serious errors he made at the end of the stage. Whether he himself reflected or someone had words with him is almost immaterial. His apology seems genuine and not stage-managed.

    I’d like to know the role of his team in communications with him between the incident and the top of the climb. I believe that Contador’s immediate thoughts were likely to be about winning for the glory of winning (rather than the commercial implications) but I wouldn’t be so sure about his management.

    • Tim says:

      I think the role (or lack thereof) of the Astana team management cannot be underestimated. Even more so than Contador, they will have been fully aware over race radio of what was going on, and I imagine they will have been in constant dialogue with their man. Did they explain exactly what had happened, only for Contador to decide to keep going? Or were they complicit in encouraging him to speed onwards? Either way, you would have hoped that a sensible head would have prevailed and slowed thing down.

      Where Contador was at fault was not in his initial reaction, but in continuing to pile on the pressure in the minutes that followed. The “I didn’t know what was going on” line is clearly rubbish – that’s what your eyes and the radio in your ear are for. And as for his interview afterwards, well … The video apology was welcome, but the cynic in me says it’s easy to apologise when you have the time in the bag already.

  6. It’s hard to think of an incident that could more graphically illustrate the extraordinary schizophrenia that has accompanied the Tour de France since its earliest days. On the one hand cheating in various forms seems to have be de rigueur in the Tour from day one, and in that sense the recent drugs scandals can be seen as simply the continuation of a grand tradition. On the other, the Tour has equally prided itself on an almost mediaeval sense of honour and chivalry. In the same way, the Tour has always seemed in one moment to elevate itself above grubby commerce into a realm of “pure” titanic competition, whilst simultaneously indulging in the tackiest and most blatant commercialism imaginable. After all, it all started from a circulation war between rival sports papers; a modest origin which has now become mythologised as the epitome of human striving for ultimate glory.

    It’s thus hardly any wonder then that Contador’s behaviour has split opinion so markedly, and that his own response to his actions seems to have been as schizophrenic as the Tour itself. Emotionally, I always want to have my sports heroes effortlessly combine competitive courage with altruistic morals, but in matters of the Tour this is probably even more than usually hopeless a romantic aspiration!

    • Tim says:

      Oh,come on! Surely you can’t think that the publicity caravan chucking out all their freebies is anything other than a grand romantic gesture? It’s like a modern-day Feeding of the Five Thousand … 😉

      You are quite right about the dichotomy of the Tour: doping, commercialisation and all. Cycling was one of the very first sports (possibly even the first) to embrace the concept of sponsorship, and I always find it quite refreshing to hear Mark Cavendish talking so candidly about the whole point of him racing being so that he can thrust his arms aloft and display his sponsors’ logos to the world. At least he’s honest. (It certainly makes a change from hearing football people talking about why they have moved for “the challenge” or “the project”, and not because someone offered them £120k pw.)

      I think that’s one of the key reasons I love cycling so much. It’s bloody hard work, contested by hard men, many of whom earn less in a year than some footballers do in a week. And I can guarantee you will never hear a professional cyclist talking about being bored about being locked up in five-star luxury with nothing to do while competing at the biggest event in their sport. Unlike certain other people I could mention *ahem*.

  7. Marc says:

    I’ve just seen the apology, which was definitely very welcome. I also agree it was bad for him to attack (rather than simply continue riding on) while Schleck was in trouble. The problem I have, and the reason I was trying to play devil’s advocate a little in my piece (here – http://marchw108.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/tour-de-france-stage-15-voeckler-victory-schleck-shocker/ ), was that it seems like there are different levels of sportsmanship, whether that’s right or wrong. To the outsider, it can seem hard to make out when it’s appropriate to play ‘fair’, by sitting up and waiting. Is it simply if the yellow jersey has a mechanical problem, the entire race stops? Or is it every time someone considered a ‘rival’ has a problem? And if so, how many people have to wait?
    This isn’t an attempt to defend Contador (over the past 24 hours we’ve seen plenty of pundits and journalists come down on both sides of the issue) – rather an attempt to make sense of the complicated issues here.
    I think the ideal solution would have been the Contador attack waiting for Schleck to come back to them, once they realised he had had a problem (which, as many of you have said, should have been instantly over the radio). But it seems none of them were willing to do that (don’t forget, Sanchez and Menchov were also driving the group on the descent). A lack of class on the parts of everyone involved, certainly.

    • Tim says:

      I agree wholeheartedly. It was never just a simple case of black-and-white yesterday, and you play both sides of the argument very eloquently in your post. (At that point I was still fuming with rage!) In Contador’s defence, I suppose if it’s impossible for everyone on the outside to agree what is right and what is wrong, how the hell do we expect the riders to make the right decision?

      Having said that, they were clearly wrong … 😉

  8. equaTNimous says:

    The unwritten rules of cycling originiated during the Pre World War II tours. In those days, mechanical mishaps were much more common and significant. For many years, it was debated whether or not a 3rd party, teammate, mechanic, or coach could even perform repairs on behalf of the riders. Henri Desgrange, the original Tour organizer, wanted the Tour to be a test of the individual. So, in those days the riders had to carry their own repair equipment, tire tubes, etc and perform their own repairs. Just this morning, the riders past a monument to Eugune Christophe, famous Tour loser and pre-curser to Jan Ulrich, who had to perform his own metal shop work in a foundry after his front fork broke on the Tourmalet.

    The unwritten code of that day, was that you couldn’t capitalize on another’s mechanical misfortune. Too many Pre-War Tours had been decided by luck or fate, and not by cycling ability. After WWII, there was a movement that this cycling etiquette would allow the best rider to win, not the best fortune.

    However, cycling is a different sport now. The technology of the bike is different. The system of team support and neutral support is different.

    In a car race, if your equipment fails, you lose. Cycling should be the same. It’s a race. The first rider to cross the finish line wins.

    • Tim says:

      A very good point, and I don’t disagree with you.

      I guess the thing is that at the start of a season – or at least before a race – the riders need to say that they’re no longer going to stick to historical etiquette (which hasn’t always been strictly adhered to anyway), and they’re just going to race. Then everyone knows where they stand, and let the chips fall where they may.

      It doesn’t really matter what “rules” they race under as long as everyone knows what those rules are and they stick by them. New rules, old rules – makes very little difference to us the viewers, as long as we know which rules we’re playing by.

      Even though the old etiquette was intended for different times, we saw yesterday that even in modern times a mechanical failure in an unfortunate spot can have a huge impact on the race. If it had happened early in the stage, there would have been no problem, but because it happened where it did, well, we saw what the result was.

      • equaTNimous says:

        I also wanted to say that I was really bored during stage 2 watching Cancellara(!) be the Tour Patron and hold up the race. Traditional cycling etiquette doesn’t lead to thrilling racing.

      • Tim says:

        On the Spa stage, though, the ‘agreement’ enforced by Cancellara was ostensibly about rider safety, and in such instances I’m okay with that. It’s like a safety car period in F1, where safety trumps viewer entertainment.

        Neutralising the sprint was excessive, however. Having brought the race back together, they should have just got on with it – the level of danger associated with a wet sprint falls within normal parameters. To extend the F1 analogy: safety car periods are a bit dull, but the restarts can be quite exciting.

        On the whole, I agree that etiquette can make racing boring – but then so can hard and fast rules. And every now and then a gentleman’s agreement gives us a gem – if Ullrich and the other leaders hadn’t slowed on Luz-Ardiden in 2003, we would never have had Lance’s adrenaline-fuelled charge, and he might have ended up only a four-time winner …

  9. acoralsea says:

    Thanks for popping by, every now and then. I enjoy your comments and appreciate the fact that you take the time to offer them. Thanks for taking the time to post all this history, as well, and the images. I don’t have that time, now that I’m expected to sit behind a desk all day and am blocked from blogging as the Tour unfolds (grrr!). We certainly do agree about the lack of sportsmanship exhibited by Contador. OK, fine, he’s a champion, he’s a kid, but he’s also showing a rather ugly side that I hope doesn’t mean the beginning of a trend in the Tour, or in pro cycling in general.
    http://wp.me/p10Lo-cx

    • Tim says:

      Ah, work – a four letter word … 😉

      I hope cycling doesn’t develop the ugly side of gamesmanship (as opposed to sportsmanship) we see in many other sports. Cycling has enough skeletons in its cupboard with its doping history; it doesn’t need more, particularly at a time where young French people are starting to become a bit disillusioned with the Tour.

  10. Jesus Diaz says:

    Sportsmanship died seven years ago too:

    Lance did see in front of him his major oponent that year hitting the ground. He did not look back and kept riding. If I were Alberto, I would have wait for Andy until he had fixed his bike. Come on boys, you are overdemonizing Alberto and overpraising Lance. And they did the same, run to victory. So, why do yo treat Alberto as a cheater and Lance as a role model? Memory is so fragile. Beloki is still waiting for Lance’s apologies, Andy did not wait even a single day for Alberto’s apologies. And you keep on critcizing him?

    • Tim says:

      Actually, my memory of the incident is very clear, having watched and posted about that 2003 Gap stage earlier this week.

      Armstrong “did not look back and kept riding”. That is true, although I think the reason he did so was mostly to do with the fact that he was slamming on his brakes, swerving out of the way of the fallen Beloki, diverting down a grassy bank into a rough, ploughed field which was (a) bumpy and (b) pretty steep, and then jumping across a two-metre ditch while carrying his bike.

      I’m struggling to see what Armstrong has to apologise to Beloki for. The accident was just that – an accident (which Armstrong had nothing to do with). He and Beloki had been chasing Vinokourov, who was racing down to the finish just 4 km away and was, at the time, something like 15 seconds behind Armstrong. Surely if the onus was on anyone to stop, it was Vino? Perhaps Armstrong could have stopped, but first he would have had to persuade Vino and the other chasing group of leaders to stop a full-blooded chase, or else he would have been the only loser as a result of an incident which was not his fault. That wouldn’t have been particularly fair either.

      My belief remains that Contador should probably have stopped or at least ridden tempo, but I do also appreciate that he made a split-second, spur of the moment decision, and that opinion is very much divided as to whether what he did was right or wrong. (It’s easy for us to declare what he should have done from the comfort of our homes!) Although I think he did breach cycling etiquette, I don’t have that much of a problem with it, because it was such a grey area. What I did have a major problem with was Contador pretending that he was completely ignorant of what had happened to Schleck. Even if he did not see Schleck stuck by the side of the road as he went past, I’m sure he would have been told over his radio. So to plead total ignorance was laughable – he would have been better off just saying he saw an opportunity and he took it.

      Armstrong received praise for waiting for Ullrich on the Peyresourde in 2001, and the reverse was true on Luz-Ardiden in 2003. If Contador had shown a similar act of generosity, he would have been praised for his class and gentlemanly conduct – and would still have been odds-on favourite for the yellow jersey anyway. It was a missed opportunity in that sense.

      If you think that this is over-demonising Contador, I would ask you to consider the evidence from 2003 and ask yourself whether you are also over-demonising Armstrong.

  11. Jesus Diaz says:

    I appreciate very much that you reply a non-favorable comment, thanks Tim. But I
    totally disagree in many points, let’s see 🙂

    You explain very well the geomorphological reasons that prevent Lance from stopping. But if Lance is the good man you show us in chapter 2, exhibit c, I still do not understand why he did not show any concern for his major rival after watching him hitting the ground on the most violent way, he just rode straight past and ran away. That was not just a mechanical problem, it could have been a terrible issue.

    Armstrong did not behave as a fair oponent that day. Of course Lance had nothing to do with Beloki’s accident, but neither Alberto with the chain problem. And both Alberto and Lance reacted apparently in the same way. On the other hand, Alberto is still a young rider, has lots to learn and we must watch how he behaves in the future.

    You claim that Alberto should have stopped or at least ridden tempo, and that Armstrong that day was not alone, Vino was too fighting for the tour. Well, what about Samu Sánchez or Menchov? Yes, two and a half minutes away from Alberto and Andy in the general chart, but why is everybody blaming Contador and nobody blaming Samu Sánchez or Menchov? I also have doubts whether Contador knew about the chain when he rode straight past Andy, check out the video Again, Vino is clearly blocking Alberto’s vision. And then there is a curve and I do not know if Alberto could see Andy on his feet.

    I am not overdemonizing Lance, Tim, of course not. But you are comparing a good gesture of Lance with a bad one from Alberto, as if Lance have had always behave that way. What also is not fair is expressions like “sportsmanship died, hitting a man while he is down”, well that is a complete exageration about a rider who has already apologised two or three times.

    Well as you probably have guessed by now, english is not my mother tongue, so sorry for the wrong use of lots of prepositions, mispelling and making up words and I hope you catch my point.

    • Tim says:

      Jesus, your English is just fine – and much better than my 100 words of Spanish!

      The headline of my article – and please note, the question mark is deliberate! – is intended to provoke discussion rather than make a statement, and I thank you for offering an alternative viewpoint. As for “hitting a man while he is down”, whether intentional or not, that is what Contador did, as the end result is measured on the stopwatch, not in what is said afterwards. I am glad they had their public reconciliation afterwards, because while cycling always needs great rivalries, it does not need war.

      I am willing to accept the possibility that Contador did not have a great view as he passed Schleck, but he also had 30-odd kilometres afterwards of thinking time and discussions with his directeur sportif to rectify the situation. He didn’t. And while I agree with you that Sanchez or Menchov are far from blameless, the reality is that as the senior rider in terms of both race position and influence, they would have bowed to Contador’s will if he had decided to slow down a bit.

      But as I’ve said, my problem is not so much with Alberto’s decision to press on, but with the way he tried to obfuscate the truth afterwards. That showed a distinct lack of class – he should either have defended his decision properly, or held his hands up and admitted that he might have made a mistake, as he did later on YouTube.

      Finally, it’s really not my intention to compare “good” with “bad”. Nor do I regard Armstrong as 100% a good guy – there are plenty of examples of his ruthlessness around, from chasing down a rider he bore a grudge against for daring to try to join a break, to his political games with Contador last year. He’s not perfect, but how many sporting icons truly are? It’s their flaws that make them fascinating.

      The bigger problem here is with the vagueness of what exactly sportsmanship is in cycling, and when should etiquette apply: when do you follow it, and when is it acceptable not to? At the extremes it is easy: if there is a pile-up in the final kilometre of a sprint, that’s just tough luck, whereas if the yellow jersey falls off his bike in the first hour of racing, the peloton will wait (but not any breakaway, obviously). It is in the grey areas in between – like Monday – that it is difficult to judge what the right thing to do is.

      Similarly, I’m not suggesting for one minute that Vino should have slowed in 2003. He was ahead, not far from the finish, and Armstrong essentially had no choice but to keep going. In this case, any talk about etiquette doesn’t really apply. It was a critical racing situation – the timing of Beloki’s accident, as with Armstrong’s puncture on stage 3 here, was unfortunate but just one of those things.

      Sorry for the long answer, but you do raise many interesting points – even though we don’t agree on many of them! – and I want to be able to answer them fully.

      I actually have a (partial) solution in mind to this whole problem, albeit not the most elegant one – more on that later (probably tomorrow).

  12. Jesus Diaz says:

    I love long answers 🙂

    The funny thing is that I think we agree on the basis, Alberto was not elegant that day (supposing that he did not knew about the chain when he counterattacked). I started commenting here because I thought your punishment was just out of proportion and your comparisions unfair and incomplete. So, I wanted to balance things.

    But there is one missing point that still has not been arose. (and I promise I end here my complaints against this thread 😀 ) You all are putting Alberto on trial for his behaviour in one day. Well, the Tour is a 21-day race. You have already mentioned Stage 2, how Cancellara and SaxoBank enforced to slow the march. What happened the very next day, Stage 3?. That is the key day to understand why, even knowing that Andy had a chain problem, Alberto did not way for him. On Stage 3, there was a fall. Who was the most benefit? Who did not wait for the group who had wait for him the previous day? Yes, Andy. How can he thus talk about fair play when the chain Stage is over? Moreover, Alberto did have also a mechanical problem on Stage 3 near to the finish line who everybody has forgotten. All in all, he lost 53+20 = 73 seconds that day…

    I clearly understand why Alberto did not wait Andy. The day sportsmanship died? Mmm no, the day sportsmanship was compensated, I guess.

    • Tim says:

      The fact the Tour is a three-week race is irrelevant. Fair or not, all it takes is one moment of madness or poor sportsmanship to cast a cloud over anyone’s reputation. Thierry Henry’s glittering career is sullied by a deliberate handball; Zinedine Zidane’s by a head-butt; Michael Schumacher’s by any number of incidents which detract from his incredible F1 record. People remember people by their career highs and their lows – and often it is their lows they remember first. Laurent Fignon once said wryly that people tend to remember him more for the one Tour he lost to Lemond than for the two he won. (Obviously, that’s not a sportsmanship issue, but it is an example of people remembering lows first and highs second.)

      I don’t really want to get into the stage 3 issue in any great detail (it’s too late and I need to sleep), but I would point out that by the time Alberto had his problem at the end, I think Andy might have already finished (or at least not been aware – not that he would have stopped anyway).

      And as I have said a few times, my biggest problem is not that Alberto attacked, it is the way he basically lied about being ignorant of Andy’s problem afterwards.

      Anyhow, cycling fans will remember Alberto’s graciousness on the Tourmalet, and they will not be blind to his great achievements but, like it or not, the mainstream media and casual fans will always remember ‘Chain-gate’. It may only be one stage out of 21, but that’s just the way the media works. Nobody’s saying it’s right, but it IS true.

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