2008 – 2010 Clash of the Titans

2008 MAKING ONE ATTACK COUNT

Contador certainly had a knack for picking the wrong team – he was absent from the start line of the 2008 Tour because his new Astana outfit was excluded from the race.

Christian Prudhomme – who had taken over as head of the Tour after a career spent eulogising Lance Armstrong as a France 2/3 commentator and journalist in 2005 – said “Astana have appointed a new leadership and their manager Johan Bruyneel has asked us to trust them but we can’t – we remember what happened in 2006, then came 2007 with a new team who asked us to trust them. We did that and paid dearly for it.”

Pat McQuaid, head of the UCI, disagreed: “It is a decision I cannot understand – this team has done everything to bury the past…I still hope there will be a solution and that Astana will be at the start of the Tour in July.”

The new directeur sportif at Astana was Johan Bruyneel – the man who had guided Lance Armstrong to his 7 Tour wins* – the benefit of 20/20 hindsight raises all kind of uncomfortable questions as to why McQuaid was so keen to champion a team that had brought such disgrace to the race in 2007 – and a DS who would turn out to be part of the biggest doping conspiracy the sport had ever seen. But Prudhomme prevailed and Contador did not get the chance to defend his Tour de France crown.

The race is now wide open and it’s the Spanish team Saunier Duval-Scott that seizes the day. At least as far as stage 12 when the entire team abandons as a result of Ricardo Ricco‘s positive test for CERA EPO after stage 4, the Cholet TT – how fitting it should be Cholet, where Roussel was arrested 10 years earlier in the Festina affair. Leonardo Piepoli also returns 2 CERA EPO positives in the race, but these aren’t announced until the following October. Ricco is wearing the Polka Dot Jersey when the team withdraw, having won the stages to Super Besse and Bagneres-de-Bigorre. Pieploi had won the stage to Hautacam.

Ricco and Piepoli are sacked from the team and the remaining riders and staff issue the following statement:

After the incidents in this edition of the Tour de France, we, the riders of Saunier Duval-Scott, would like to make the statement that the team in full, including cyclists, technical staff (Mauro Gianetti, Joxean Fernández Matxin, Pietro Algeri, Sabino Angoitia, and Matteo Algeri), and doctors (José Ibarguren, Juan Carlos Alameda, and María Sagasti) have always believed in clean and credible cycling, and this has been the guiding principle in all team meetings.

Our general manager, Mauro Gianetti, has encouraged us to get involved in humanitarian projects (fighting desertification in Mali, defending human rights, protecting the environment), teaching the importance of the human and ethical aspects associated with cycling beyond sports results.

We do not accept, and we strongly condemn, the choice made by riders seeking victory through deception. Therefore, we would not like this incident to stain the team’s impeccable reputation, or ours, or the management’s.

We are not ready to pay the price for the mistakes made by others, so he hope we can still rely on the trust society has always had in us, stemming from our serious, honest image.

Our principles have always been hard training and a healthy atmosphere, and we have been able to abide by them thanks to a team of supportive and helpful people who have expected sacrifice and good behaviour, rather than great sports results, of us.

We cannot and do not want to ignore the facts: cheaters need to be punished. But we also believe that those who have always fought honestly to defend the honour of the team should be protected.

We believe we still have a lot to do in the world of cycling, and we need your support to continue, showing Saunier Duval-Scott is a team of reliable and honest riders and, above all, trustworthy men.”

It’s a heartfelt commitment to ‘clean’, ethical cycling – unfortunately for those ‘trustworthy men’ Dr Jose Ibarguren Taus has been fingered by, amongst others, Willy Voet and Raimondas Rumsas (who provided the sport with one of its great doping excuses: ‘it was for my mother in law’) and Mauro Gianetti is infamous for being the rider who nearly died as a result of experimenting with PFCs (perfluorocarbon metabolites) which have an extraordinary capacity for carrying oxygen but also cause a perilous thickening of the blood. Stephane Heulot, his former teammate, said of him: “Doping is so ingrained in certain managers, like Gianetti, that they can’t conceive of cycling any other way.”

It didn’t work – the sponsors withdrew anyway when the team were denied entry to the Vuelta a Espana. Barloworld also lost their sponsorship when Moises Duenas Nevado tested positive after stage 4, just like Ricco. Not good news for a young Kenyan/British rider called Chris Froome who would finish the race in 84th place. But he was talent spotted by British Cycling’s Rod Ellingworth who thought he had potential and the rest may be history…

Another British star was born when the Manx Missile smashed all previous records by a British rider and powered to 4 – count ’em – stage wins. Mark Cavendish has gone on to even better things, including wining the Points Jersey in all 3 Grand Tours, a feat only equalled by the crème de la crème: Abdoujaparov, Jalabert, Petacchi and of course Merckx. Cav’s Tour de France stage tally (as of June 2013) currently stands at 23 – only 11 behind the 34 achieved by Merckx. Is it possible that a British rider can break that record?

But the real tale of the race is the tale of 13kms ridden up the lacets of Alpe d’Huez. That 13km attack won the 2008 Tour de France.

It’s hardly Bartali in 38 or Coppi in 52 or Gaul or Hinault or Fignon – perhaps more Van Impe attacking to win on stage 14 in the 1976 Tour, a similarly pivotal stage. And like Van Impe, Carlos Sastre had an assist – from his teammate Frank Schleck, who’d played stalking horse for the Spaniard whilst he was lying doggo in the bosom of his CSC-Tiscali team. Sastre’s attack on the Alpe was a perfect race winning move – though it meant a huge sacrifice from Frank Schleck: “Going into the Alpe d’Huez, I had yellow and Andy was sacrificing himself like he had on all the stages. And on that day we really sacrificed. Andy gave up the white jersey as best young rider and I gave up the yellow jersey. I mean, how often do you see a teammate attack the yellow jersey? Now, I am not saying that I would have won the Tour de France, but yes we lost an opportunity. Again, I was very happy that we won the Tour de France and it showed that, as a team, we did the right thing. But now I wish that somebody else had won the Tour that year.”

Sastre told a different story to l’Equipe after the Etape Reine: “What’s happened today is a dream. Something I’ve dreamed of all my life. It wouldn’t have been possible without the work of the team and the freedom that Bjarne Riis gave myself and Andy and Frank Schleck…At the foot of Alpe d’Huez I took the decision myself. Before taking off I told Frank ‘I’m going’, he replied ‘OK’. I knew that for a climber like me the best strategy was to attack from the start of the climb when the gradient was steepest. When I found myself alone at the front my only objective was to get as much time as possible. Andy did an amazing job controlling Cadel Evans.”

The 5+ minutes that Frank dropped in the final time trial says that he wouldn’t have won the Tour anyway, but Sastre’s in race discussions with Cervelo Test Team and his move away from CSC must have felt just a little galling after all the hard work the brothers put in.

Sastre is that rare beast in the modern sport – a Tour winner with barely a whiff of scandal and a reputation, at least in Spain, as a Mr Clean. He did make a suitably cryptic comment after accusations potentially linking him to Fuentes – when asked if Riis had ever introduced him to Fuentes, Sastre said, “I did not go over the bridge.” Hi boss at Cervelo, Gerard Vroomen, once commented that Sastre was “Like a philosopher. You think you know what he means but you’re never 100 per cent sure.” Perhaps Sastre just stayed under the radar – after all he turned pro for ONCE under Manolo Saiz. Or perhaps his career arc simply seems sustainable and logical without doping – his ascent of the Alpe was a log way from Pantani’s record time.

Schleck had taken the Maillot Jaune on stage 15, finally overhauling the meagre 1” deficit between himself and Cadel Evans. Afterwards he praised his brother Andy: “Andy put everyone in the red today – what he did is an art in itself. Without him we couldn’t have done what we did”. Would he like to keep the Yellow Jersey? “Of course we’re going to defend the Jersey, that’s no secret. After all, it is the Maillot Jaune. And I know I’ll have to take more time against the others but right now just let me enjoy it!”

Les Freres Schleck are one of the most curious fraternal double acts in cycling. There have been plenty of fraternal riders in the sport’s history – the Simons, of course, the de Vlaeminck’s, the Bartalis, the Coppis (both of whose brothers met with tragedy), the Indurains, Oxtoas, Feillus and Jalaberts to name a handful. For most siblings the bonds of childhood intimacy are broken by the early 20s as you move on to new friendships, relationships and careers. Not so the Schlecks – growing up in a cycling family (dad Johnny was a pro who did domestique duties for Tour winners Janssen (1968) and Ocana (1973)) their path was set from early on and they moved seamlessly from childhood to adulthood without ever having to lose their interdependence. They’ve spoken of standing on th podium together at the Tour (sweet if unlikely – Andy having outstripped his older brother in terms of talent) and retiring together (slightly stranger, given their 5 year age gap). Bruyneel wanted to sign Andy as the successor to Armstrong but refused to take his brother Frank too, believing the younger Schleck would do better alone – the deal fell through. Frank is currently suspended serving a 12 month ban for a positive test for Xipamide, a diuretic, during the 2012 Tour. The ban is due to expire on 13 July, 2013. Andy will start the 2013 Tour without his brother at his side after a nightmare season so far. Never was brotherly love so deep, loyal and poisonous.

There was another echo of Tours past when Oscar Pereiro Sio crashed on the col d’Agnel, in the rain – shades of Ocana and Van Est. He slid under the security barrier and fell onto the road 5 m below: “I went under the barrier and I saw…I had a vision of a great drop. I saw myself flying through the air and I lost my head. I thought I was going to die and I didn’t want to feel anything.” Another casualty was Barloworld’s John Lee Augustyn who overshot a hairpin on the col de la Bonnette – thrown from his bike, he went head first down a shale slope and came to rest after a good 30 m but still managed to scramble back up to the road and finish the stage – chapeau for the mountaineering skills alone. Augustyn is currently on indefinite leave from cycling with a hip problem that resurfacing has been unable to fix – but he was one of the revelations of the 2008 Tour de France.

2009 CONTADOR RECIDIVISTE

And so he came back. Couldn’t keep away. Perhaps stung by Sastre’s 2008 victory, which he called ‘a bit of a joke’. After some jiggery pokery by the UCI to allow him to ride the Tour Down Under despite not having been in the testing pool for the requisite 6 months, Armstrong lined up in Monaco on the 4th July, 2009 in the gaudy turquoise of the Astana team, now managed by his old partner in crime Johan Bruyneel.

It was an unhappy cohabitation with Contador and the cracks soon began to show

STAGE 3: Marseille – La-Grande-Motte 196.5 km ADVANTAGE ARMSTRONG

A side wind coupled with an acceleration by Cavendish’s Columbia team caused a clean break in the peloton. Armstrong ‘found himself’ in the front group with Popovych and Zubeldia – their team leader trailed in some 41” down with Evans who said “Armstrong has shown his experience, Columbia have confirmed their class”.

STAGE 4: Montpellier TTT 39 kms ADVANTAGE ARMSTRONG

The team time trial showed a solid, unified Astana who failed to put Armstrong in the Yellow Jersey by a gnat’s whisker. I remember standing on a station platform desperately stabbing the refresh button on my browser, heart thumping, willing the Jersey to stay on Cancellara’s shoulders – anyone but Armstrong’s. Had he stood on the winner’s podium that day and not Cancellara who knows what race we might have seen – what was clear was that Armstrong was in it to win it. And that was the tale of 2009 – a deadly internecine rivalry unseen since 1989 and the days of the Badger.

Stage 5 was the Voeckler show – the new French darling didn’t disappoint, tongue gymnastics and all. Hushovd took stage 6 to stake his claim on the Maillot Vert, alhough Cavendish would prove himself the fastest man in the world by taking 6 stages in the race.

STAGE 7: Barcelona – Andorra-Arcais 224 kms ADVANTAGE CONTADOR

More French joy as Brice Feillu takes victory on the first day in the Pyrenees. But it was Contador’s escape 3 kms from the finish that grabbed the attention. Jumping off an Astana train straight out of the USPS/Discovery playbook there was simply nobody to match him and he grabbed 21” on GC, jumping ahead of Armstrong by a solitary but precious second. “Everybody was asking us to attack but it’s the other riders who should go on the offensive” explained Contador. His teammate clearly had other ideas: “If I imagine today’s stage I imagine Contador leading the train on the last climb at a speed no one can match. In that case, I’ll stay at the back of the group with the other favourites. But we’ll see…”

Nocentini rode himself into yellow on stage 8, Fedrigo made it another win for the French on stage 9 but the Aspin and the Tourmalet came too early in the stage to make any difference on GC, despite a tentative escape by Armstrong earlier in the stage.

And so to the rest day: those moments when riders can’t escape the press are often the most telling and Contador, despite insisting that everyone ate at the same table was forced to admit that “the atmosphere in the team could be better…if I was really the team leader (as the dossard ending 1 on his back indicated) there would have been no polemics after Arcalis.” In response to Armstrong’s comment that his attack ‘wasn’t in the plan’ the Spaniard declared: “Betwenn what’s said on the bus in the morning and what actually happens out on the road there are always differences.” Armstrong talked on French TV about the tensions in the team, and continued the mind games, claiming he could have followed Contador at Arcalis but he’d been taken by surprise and it wouldn’t have been right to counter attack a teammate. It was another attack by Armstrong – Contador would prefer to do his talking on the road.

The next stage was eagerly anticipated – Prudhome had decreed that it would be ridden without radios. The radio debate continues to rumble – fans eager to see racing like in the ‘old days’ – well, the argument goes, Coppi, Bartali, Anquetil, Hinault didn’t have to reply on the earpiece to make their tactical decisions did they? They rode on feel and intelligence and look at what they achieved, look at the exploits. Directeur sportifs eager to exploit the advantage that communication technology gives them on the road – brilliantly exploited by Bruyneel & Armstrong and the infamous ‘Look’ – cloaked in arguments about safety. And they mask another battle, as Jonathan Vaughters has outlined: “To be clear, radio ban protests are not only about the radio ban. Teams and riders must have greater participation in governance of cycling.” Radios are the Trojan Horse for debate about deeper issues in the sport. As it was, Cavendish won stage 10 without incident – and without the longed for eventful racing either.

As the race rumbled towards the Alps, Cavendish took back to back wins by taking another unstoppable, irrepressible win on stage 11. Stage 12 went to Sorensson, 13 to Haussler, 14 to Ivanov. Then the day before the second rest day, Contador struck again.

STAGE 15: Pontarlier – Verbier 207.5 kms ADVANTAGE CONTADOR

Contador took wing over the last 5kms with an attack both beautiful and deadly to fly into the finish 43” ahead of Andy Schleck and 1′ 35” ahead of his teammate Armstrong. With an advantage on GC of 1′ 35” on the American the team leadership now surely belonged to the young Spaniard alone?

Astarloza took a fine win for his Euskaltel team on stage 16 and Bruyneel announced that his Astana adventure was over – he would reappear the next year with a team tailor made for Armstrong.

STAGE 17: Bourg-St-Maurice – Le Grand-Bornand 169.5 kms ADVANTAGE CONTADOR

Contador finished in a Schleck sandwich with Frank taking the win and the trio putting 2′ 18” into 4th and 5th placed Nibali and Armstrong. It was Contador that broke the elite group on the Colombiere and made the final selection, in the process dropping teammates Armstrong and Kloeden, and getting an iron grip on GC. You’d think Bruyneel would be happy to have the race sewn up with a probable podium place for Armstrong, right? Wrong. Bruyneel blasted Contador for dropping Kloeden and thus losing Astana the putative chance of a podium clean sweep. Leipheimer, who’d abandoned with a fractured wrist, weighed in: “if Andreas finishes 4th on GC less than 2 minutes from the podium we’ll all know where he lost the time.” Contador claimed to have spoken to Kloeden and told him he was about to attack, to which his teammate had replied “If you want to.” Leipheimer claimed the Spaniard and the German had spoken together in English – clearly something got lost in translation.

For his part the Spaniard was happy to have won the race fair and square this time. L’Equipe asked him if it was the best day of his career – his answer bears repeating: “No, my best memory was 2005, when I came back to competition after the accident that could have cost me my life in 2004. I was at the Tour Down Under and I succeeded in winning the etape reine. That remains the best day of my career.”

On May 12th 2004, Alberto Contador collapsed on a training ride and went into a coma due to a congenital vascular condition, cerebral cavernoma. His head still clearly bears the scars of the surgery that saved his life. Contador began walking again in August and was back on the bike in December – his inspiration throughout the long months of rehabilitation and recuperation? Lance Armstrong. Contador’s older brother Fran is his manager, his younger brother Raul has cerebral palsy – Contador’s earnings as a cyclist have enabled his family to give up work and devote their time to caring for Raul.

STAGE 18: Annecy TT 40.5 kms ADVANTAGE CONTADOR

In a country full of gorgeous towns in beautiful locations Annecy still manages to stand out – nestled on the banks of Lac Annecy and riddled with canals, it’s known as the Alpine Venice. It was the backdrop for the moment when Contador enfonce le clou by taking the win in the Yellow Jersey – or rather a Yellow skinsuit, a trend started by the great modern showman Cipollini. He was 3” faster than the great specialist Fabien Cancellara, 41” and 43” ahead of the British TT stars Millar and Wiggins and a whole 1′ 30” ahead of 16th placed Lance Armstrong. Game was definitively over.

Armstrong picked up a cheeky 4” when the peloton split at the sprint finish on stage 19. Cavendish won it but it wasn’t enough to close the gap on Hushovd who would take the Maillot Vert to Paris because of his superiority in the mountains. And so it came down to the most mythical of them all – Mont Ventoux.

STAGE 20 Montellimar – Mont Ventoux 167 kms GAME SET AND MATCH CONTADOR

With an advantage of 4′ 11” over Andy Schleck there was scant hope that the Yellow Jersey was at stake. But with only 38” separating the riders placed 3-6 on GC there was everything to play for. I don’t know if Prudhomme had hoped for more from the stage but it was pretty much a damp squib though it was a source of great delight for many that the Geant once again denied Armstrong – he would never win on the Bald Mountain. Ventoux has judged many riders in its time and Armstrong was clearly judged and found wanting.

Cavendish won on the Champs Elysees and that was the 2009 Tour de France. Armstrong stood on the podium, though not on the step he had wanted or imagined. Just at the foot of the podium, in the unluckiest place in sport, was fourth placed Bradley Wiggins. Under the management of Jonathan Vaughters and riding now for his Garmin team, Wiggins had shown an unexpected talent for staying with the big guns in the mountains. It seemed like a successful road career might finally beckon for the Londoner.

And then the war of words started and the sheer scale of the pressure Contador had been under emerged. That the Spaniard had triumphed despite not because of his team was a demonstration of sheer mental toughness. Contador defined it as winning the ‘Double Tour – on the road and in the hotel’. Contador claimed he knew it would happen beforehand so was prepared for it and knew how to manage it, but the list of petty little incidents must have accumulated quite a psychological weight before the race reached Paris.

Before the race even started there were the ultra light TT wheels that had been provided for Armstrong but not Contador. Then there was the twitter campaign, the carping criticism at Contador’s tactics (or lack of them), the way Armstrong divided and ruled the team leaving Contador with the support of his brother, his masseur and his loyal teammate Paulhino. Contador had to get to the start of the Annecy time trial in his brother’s car – the official Astana cars had been commandeered by Armstrong to collect his friends and family from the airport. Armstrong pulled the same trick on the Ventoux when Contador again had to hitch a lift with his brother – the cars had rolled off down the mountain containing the likes of Sheryl Crowe and Robin Williams leaving the Spanish Maillot Jaune stranded. When Ivan Gutierrez of the Caisse d’Epargne team tried to hand his friend Contador a bottle, Armstrong intercepted and took it himself. Armstrong ordered champagne after the team time trial but didn’t attend the traditional celebration diner for the Yellow Jersey the night before Paris.

At the time, Contador was widely slated for stating: “My relationship with Armstrong is none-but independent from his personality, he’s a great champion, has won 7 tours and done a great job in this one, but on a personal level I haven’t had a great admiration towards him, and never will, but again-as a rider-he’s a great champion.” With what we now know about Armstrong’s bullying, borderline sociopathic behaviour at the helm of USPS and Discovery during the years of their great dope fulled success, Contador’s assessment seems both honest and extraordinarily tactful.

Cycling has been fueled over the years by great rivalries and those rivalries have been characterised by clashes not only of style but of personality. Maybe their similar experiences of fighting against physical adversity and coming back to triumph at the highest level made them more like brothers under the skin than they realised. It was a rivalry that never flowered properly and might have been utterly fascinating had both riders been at their peak in the early 00s. But this potentially fascinating clash of the generations – in many senses – would never be repeated.

2010 THE NEW GENERATION

The tale of this Tour is about that nebulous concept ‘fairplay’ and how its application – or lsck of – can turn the result of a race. There were two pivotal moments: the first when Cancellara, the Yellow Jersey, called a truce on stage 2; the second when Alberto Contador counter attacked Andy Schleck on stage 15 when the Schlecklette had dropped his chain.

The 201 km second stage was raced over roads most familiar from the Ardennes Classics. The Stockeu that caused such chaos in the wet and slippery conditions is a feature of La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the oldest of the Classics. Chavanel had crashed in that venerable race and cracked his skull – nearly 3 months later, over the same roads, he had his revenge. Attacking after only 10 kms he stayed away for a famous victory leaving all the drama of the stage in his wake. Behind him was carnage. Riders skidded and crashed in treacherous conditions and the Stockeu was the instrument of chaos. Italian rider Gavazzi was trying to get away from the peloton and catch up with the leaders when he crashed on the descent. A camera bike crashed into him and the domino effect took hold – riders attempting to avoid bikes and bodies strewn across the road fell in their turn: Schleck, Contador and Armstrong were all caught in their turn.

The peloton was now in pieces – smashed apart by the weather and the treacherous parcours. Cancellara and Evans were in a front group chasing the leaders at 1′ 40”, Armstrong and Contador were in a second group at 2′ 35” and the Schlecks, forever bound by their filial ties, languished 3′ 40” back with the time gaps going out with every pedal turn.

If the race stops here, ‘chaingate’ becomes immaterial and the race takes on a totally different complexion. What might have been never is, of course, but it’s a fascinating ‘what if’ exercise. Imagine that the gaps multiply in the remaining 40 kms as they so often do. Andy Schlecks challenge for the Yellow Jersey is over.

And this is where ‘fair play’ rears its potentially ugly head – like a footballer kicking the ball into touch when a player is injured, the Maillot Jaune, Fabian Cancellara, Andy & Frank Schleck’s teammate at Saxo Bank, cals a truce and the peloton gradually regroups and crosses the line 3′ 56” after Chavanel. Cancellara sacrifices the Yellow Jersey to the Frenchman but he arguably saves the Tour for his team leader.

Did he do the right thing? Compare it with Armstrong’s antics in the 1999 Tour when he ordered his team to drive the remnants of the peloton away after the infamous chute de Gois. That as much as any one moment won the race for Armstrong – yet the unwritten rule, the laws of ‘fair play’ said that he should have slowed the peloton and allowed a regroupement after such a huge crash so early in the stage, so early in the race. Of course Armstrong was a rider who was at ease with breaking those unwritten rules, so long as it worked in his favour and he was more than capable of bleating about their importance if he was on the receiving end.

Debate raged – To Race or Not to Race, that was the question. The history of the Tour has been littered with incidents when the Yellow Jersey has been attacked or an attack has been launched after a puncture or in the feed zone. The ‘unwritten rules’ have been broken so often that the times they are observed seem the exception rather than the rule. They seem to have gained traction in a different age, before the sport became ‘professionalised’ – the days when riders would go up the road to greet family and friends, when there was always a pat on the back for the failed escapee as the peloton swallowed him up. Those moments aren’t gone forever, but they’re becoming rarer than those hen’s teeth. And it’s a shame – every time a rider falls through the peloton and out the back unacknowledged is another link gone from the chain that binds the race to its past.

Gerard Vroomen, boss of the Cervelo team tweeted angrily “kudos to Riis having a rider protest staged when your two leaders are about to lose the Tour de France. A great coup.” The ‘rider protest’ was allegedly in response to conditions on the Stockeu, which an oil spill from the crashed motorbike had turned from slippery to treacherous. Cancellara’s motives were also less than selfless: “The first thing on my mind after the crash was Andy and Fränk. They are our captains and of course, I want to show solidarity, respect and loyalty to them and to the race by waiting even though I lost the jersey.”

It was a shame that Cancellara’s thoughtfulness didn’t extend to the following stage – more carnage on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix meant Chavanel lost the jersey after puncturing twice. Nobody had any qualms about attacking the Yellow Jersey on stage 3, it seemed.

And so to ‘Chaingate’. Andy Schleck started that fateful stage 15 to Bagneres-de-Luchon 31” ahead of Contador. He ended it having lost the Jersey by 8” and en colere at an incident on the Port de Bales. It’s probably one of the most famous incidents of the modern Tour – the moment when Schleck surges away from Contador then grinds almost to a halt as he drops his chain as Contador counters back down the road. Could Contador see what was happening up ahead? Was it just a coincidence or a deliberate attack on the Maillot Jaune in trouble?

The beautiful thing about all the great cycling debates is their passionate subjectivity – Contador ‘lacked class’, Schleck should have checked his set up, Contador shouldn’t have taken advantage of a Yellow Jersey.

The problem with a Schleck/Contador rivalry was that it was like a fight between teddy bears – there was none of the arrogant cool of Hinault, or even Armstrong, at play. The 2 riders were far too busy falling over each other paying testament to their friendship: Contador “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”; Schleck: “People can say what they want but they also have realize that Alberto was one of the guys who waited for me in Spa and that was really a great sign of fair play. Chapeau! Today was a different story, a different scenario but the Tour is not finished.” Schleck promised that he would “ride on the Tourmalet until I fall off my bike” but it was an empty threat, as if that one tentative escape had been all he had in him. Despite foggy conditions that promised something suitably epic straight from the days of the Giants of the Road, Schleck’s promised rage never materialised – his passivity is legendary: “What happened, happens. I cannot change the situation even if I’m mad. Of course I wouldn’t have minded to throw my bike into the fence and just hit someone but you’ve got to keep yourself under control in situations like this. If you just stay calm it’s worthwhile. If you yell at people, it won’t change the situation. It is how it is. I’m not crying behind my jersey. In the end it comes down to the fact that this is a bike race and we will make the final count. I’m not done with.”

Armstrong came back with a purpose built Radioshack team but age and bad luck did for his GC chances which were over by stage 8. Was it karma? It’s tempting to think so in hindsight. The legacy of his team’s ‘all for one’ approach would dominate the next 2 Tours but it was all over for the 39 year old Texan. It was as if all the crashes that he’d avoided in his charmed life as a 7 Time Tour de France Winner* came back to haunt him with a vengeance. That his partners in a later race escape wouldn’t even grant him a sentimental win spoke volumes about how times had apparently changed in the peloton.

Of course the final irony is that Contador won by 39” – the exact amount of time that he took out of Schleck on stage 15. Should he have observed the ‘unwritten rule’? Or are those rules redundant as the race charges towards its 100th edition?

It was all moot anyway – Contador tested positive for of Clenbterol, an infinitesmally small amount (the plasticiser traces are another story) but Clen was a zero tolerance product so he was looking at a ban, on 21st July. He blamed the steak and started an internet meme and a new wave of cycnicism about the sport. The UCI despite many months of twisting in the wind were forced to ban him, a ban that CAS upheld. The ins and outs are too detailed, bizarre and fascinating to go into here – just who was the mysteriosu ‘Mr X’ anyway? – but the upshot was that the record book shows that Schleck won it after all, though he wasn’t happy about it: “I want to win the Tour on the road. For me Contador will always remain the winner of the Tour de France 2010.”

Bicycling’s Joe Lindsay argues that ‘nice guy’ Schleck is influenced by the supposedly gentlemanly era of Armstrong/Ullrich. If that’s the case then Andy wasn’t watching the chute de Gois or the Beloki crash or the countless other times when Armstrong abused the role of the patron. The Tour de France has always been a dog eat dog race and may the alpha dog win. If Andy Schleck wants to win on the road he needs to learn how to bark, and bark loudest.

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2 thoughts on “2008 – 2010 Clash of the Titans

  1. I did not know that about Lance commandeering cars – it’s outrageous, thank you for broadcasting it.

    I have found myself developing a sneaking respect and even liking for AC over the years dammit – his twitter feed is much more human than his tv interviews.

  2. Great piece. Brings back 2009 really vividly. It’s strange looking back though. AC lost the 2010 race whereas his 2009 performance was by far the more suspicious looking one. That final TT? Still, that’s the way testing goes I guess.

    Despite this I (like you Phil and I think many others) have found Bertie growing on my over the years. Something v appealing about someone who will simply have a go when they feel good.

    An unfulfilled talent when you think how dominant he could have been with different choices. Maybe that will change this year. He might have to rediscover the 2009 magic though.

    Thanks again for the piece. Best distraction from work I can think of.

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