Thursday, July 22, 2010

A baby’s playpen

“I think we are turning cycling into a baby’s playpen and that’s what happens in these circumstances.”

-Carlos Sastre, following stage 17, in which Contador slowed the peloton after Sammy Sanchez crashed

My first thought when Contador slowed the peloton following Sanchez’s crash was that he was trying to make up for “chaingate.” Sastre* made his opinion known by continuing to chase after the breakaway.

*Jonathan over at Revolution Wheelworks astutely pointed out that there's "Something ironic about the guy who crosses the line with a pacifier in his mouth calling others 'babies.'"

Everyone has their opinion regarding whether Contador should have stopped when Schleck dropped his chain. In the heat of the moment, my emotional response was one of outrage, thinking Contador should have waited and then resumed racing once Schleck’s machine* was fully functional. But in hindsight, I realize this has more to do with my preference for Schleck over Contador than anything else.

*Am I the only one that finds these yellow bikes for the yellow jersey holder garish and annoying? And they seem to be temperamental, too. I remember Fabian having to get his adjusted mid race in a previous tour, and I can’t help but wonder if Andy would have had the mechanical had he been on his primary machine rather than this ridiculously jaundiced clown bike.

Same could be said about my response when Renshaw closed the door on Tyler Farrar moments after using his head to try and extricate himself from Julian Dean’s hooked elbow. I thought Renshaw was in the wrong, and while expulsion from Le Tour seemed harsh, I felt as if some recourse was needed, and relegation would mean nothing. In hindsight, however, I realize that I’ve come off my line in bunch sprints just like Renshaw did. Farrar failed to grab Cav’s wheel, so Renshaw got on it. That’s what a good leadout does. The headbutt and closing the door were excessive, but so was the punishment. My emotional response the day of was based as much on my desire to see Farrar win a stage at Le Tour as anything else.

Cycling has written rules, including holding your line in sprints and not head butting. If you violate the written rules, race judges take action. I got DQ’d from the Bear Lake race for just such an infraction. I didn’t think it was fair because I thought officials were just looking to make an example of someone, but it wasn’t up to me. I’m sure Renshaw and the rest of team HTC-Columbia feel the same.

In Contador’s case, however, it was a perceived violation of an unwritten rule that’s caused all the hubbub. For starters, I find it painfully ironic that so many within and without pro cycling are indignant about this so-called breach of etiquette, and yet these very same people quietly ignore, vainly attempt to justify, or happily participate in illegal doping. But the bottom line is that compliance with these unwritten rules is a courtesy. And the prerogative is always with the one extending said courtesy whether or not to do so.

The only situation in which it’s not a courtesy is when it’s your job, and the person signing your paycheck tells you to wait. Chris Horner rode himself into the top 10 today and will be the best-placed rider from the USA on the GC. Yet he waited and nursed along a struggling Lance when the latter got destroyed in the Alps. Attention then turned to supporting Levi’s GC hopes helping Lance win a stage, and again Horner did his job. But imagine where Horner would be had the team come in intent on supporting their strongest rider? Yet I haven’t heard Horner complain, because he knows who butters his bread.

Many think of these courtesies as one of the grand traditions of bicycle racing. The reality is that in days past, things were much tougher on the racers, with no team cars and no help allowed from teammates, other racers, or really anyone. When stuff went wrong—and it did—they were on their own. So to decry Contador for desecrating the sport’s history is to not know the history.

Do I think Contador should have waited? Yes. It would have made his inevitable victory in Paris elegant and impressive. But perhaps Alberto’s confidence that he could ride away from Andy Schleck on a fully functional bike simply was not there, so he took advantage of the opportunity. Allowing Schleck the stage win today was a nice gesture but a pitiful consolation prize in the context of what might have been had Andy’s bike not malfunctioned.

At the end of the day, though, it’s a race. And you can’t fault anyone—not Renshaw, Sastre, or Contador—for making like Jens Voigt and racing.