This article appeared in The Herald
One incident above all in this year’s Tour de France, which finished in Paris on Sunday, provoked obsessive debate among cycling fans: an alleged breach of etiquette by the ultimate winner Alberto Contador that allowed him to gain 39 seconds – the margin of his eventual victory – on his rival Andy Schleck after the latter’s chain came off in the Pyrenees.
The argument that had Contador stopped riding and waited for the Luxembourger he might not have been in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees is at best a facile way of looking at a 3600km race. Schleck may have seemed like the stronger rider throughout the race – by Saturday’s final time trial stage Contador was suffering from a fever – but little has been made of the fact that his rival was not without mechanical troubles of his own during the Tour: on the cobbles of northern France in the first week, he rode 30km with a back brake rubbing against his wheel. No-one waited for him then, and indeed for all those queuing up to condemn the Spaniard, there are plenty former riders who admit observance of the convention has always been the exception rather than the rule.
In any case, it was the Team Saxo Bank rider’s own poor decision to make a big gear change when he did that caused his chain to come off, and a certain lack of astuteness has plagued the 25-year-old’s career to date. After finishing 12th in his first Tour de France, in 2008, however, he has improved year on year: this year’s gap from the now three-time winner Contador was a significant improvement on the 4 minutes 11 seconds by which the latter beat him into second last year.
Race director Christian Prudhomme has wasted no time in identifying the beginnings of a captivating new chapter in the history of big Tour rivalries. For him the pair are the new Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocana, or Bernald Hinault and Greg LeMond. “They are almost at the same level and that promises new, extraordinary duels”, he said at the weekend, throwing in the names of another pair – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – just in case non-aficionados weren’t paying attention.
One name he failed to mention – perhaps because he was later implicated in a doping scandal – was that of Jan Ullrich, one of the youngest Tour winners ever in 1997 but then never able to repeat the feat once Lance Armstrong started his run of seven wins in a row from 1999. But the Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry may be the one Schleck has most to worry about replicating: Anquetil won the Tour five times between 1957 and 1964; Poulidor was the eternal podium bridesmaid, coming second on three occasions and third five times.
Conceivably, Contador and Schleck might continue their rivalry for another decade: the Astana man is the senior competitor at just 27. But will their relationship ever be reversed? And will Schleck have a better chance of winning than he did this year? “This race has been so close not because Andy has been a lot better, but because I’ve been a lot worse,” was how Contador saw it on Sunday, his greatness now beyond doubt after his latest victory placed him in a select group of riders (including only himself, Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx) to have won all three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain) at least once, and the Tour de France at least three times.
One reason he has given for being “worse” than last year was the fact that he was on a course of antibiotics the week before the race. But Schleck also had another mitigating factor to contend with: his team-mate and brother, Frank – whose attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees would doubtless have tired Contador – crashed on the cobbles on stage three and had to retire from the race.
The younger Schleck’s own tactical naivete didn’t do him any favours, either. He failed to sense that Contador was tired and so failed to attack until the last kilometre in the first mountain stage, Morzine-Avoriaz, and could have again made time on the stage 17 Tourmalet summit finish if he had only made another charge after he and Contador went clear in front together. “He was too clever for me”, Schleck admitted that day.
Laurent Fignon, the two-time Tour winner, gave his own assessment in yesterday’s l’Equipe. “Contador manipulated Schleck by playing with him on a psychological level,” he opined. “He compensated for his bad spells with great mental strength and by bigging up their friendship. Over the course of the Tour, he succeeded in making his rival switch off.”
The message was clear: Schleck must be more ruthless. Champions tend to be capable of learning from their mistakes. It’s up to Schleck to do so now.