PAU, FRANCE — Defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador stirred controversy Monday when he attacked the final climb of Stage 15 just as race leader Andy Schleck’s chain popped off.
But why? As Lance Armstrong’s team director Johan Bruyneel put it, it was just a smart move.
“You can’t say to Contador, ‘Hey, wait for Andy,’” he told reporters. “There’s no gifts in this race.”
But to others in the tight-knit professional cycling community, Contador – whose attack moved him into the overall race lead – committed a grave breach of the sport’s unwritten rules of etiquette.
“Contador just gained a great chance to win, but he lost the chance to win greatly,” tweeted Cervélo TestTeam owner Gerard Vroomen.
The rules, from sunglasses style to tactical savvy
Here’s a primer of cycling’s rules of the road for newcomers.
Style counts: Sunglasses go outside of the helmet straps, wearing yellow is usually reserved for the Tour de France, and if you win a stage, zip up your jersey to give your sponsor’s logo some TV time.
Tactical savvy is also essential knowledge: Follow the wheel in front of you to avoid crashes; pull your weight on breakaways.
And if a rival is beset by misfortune, like a mechanical problem or a crash, wait for him to get back on the bike. When the race leader has to use the bathroom, everyone slows down.
But, these being unwritten, there’s always room for interpretation.
One good turn deserves another
Whereas Bruyneel supported Contador’s move yesterday, his team took a different tack some years back.
In 2001, he was managing the US Postal team when Armstrong waited for his rival Jan Ullrich to recover after a crash.
Two years later, on Stage 15 of the Tour, Ullrich returned the favor when Armstrong’s handlebars got caught up in a fan’s bag on a key climb.
“If I would have won this race by taking advantage of someone’s bad luck, then the race was not worth winning,” Ullrich said after the stage.
Conversely, there is such a thing as payback in the pro peloton. Much like retaliation pitches in baseball, riders or teams will wait for the right moment to exact revenge on rivals who have wronged them.
“It’s usually a dish that’s best served cold, many races later, but sometimes it happens in the same race,” says Cycling Weekly’s Gregor Brown.
During a stage of February’s Tour of Qatar, Britain’s Team Sky, aggrieved at the lack of cooperation from other teams to catch a breakaway, launched an attack while many riders were picking up food – a serious faux pas among cyclists.
Later that day, Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, the race leader, had to make a pit stop.
As punishment for his team’s earlier transgression, rivals charged ahead without him, eventually knocking Boasson Hagen out of the lead.
Will Contador be punished by other cyclists?
Whether Contador will be subject to similar treatment remains to be seen as the Tour makes its way towards Sunday’s final stage in Paris.
Though Schleck declared that he would get “revenge” for yesterday’s incident and has former teammates that may look out for him – cooperation among teams is another unspoken tradition – Contador has much support in the peloton as well, especially from fellow Spanish riders.
In fact, the absence of a rules enforcer in the peloton may be the most interesting detail to come out of the ordeal.
There has been a clear hierarchy in the past, with so-called bosses like Lance Armstrong advising the peloton and doling out punishments.
But struggling through his last Tour, Armstrong may be more concerned with finishing the race than policing it.
And the unwritten rules may be suffering.
“It’s kind of like anarchy right now so we’re seeing these things happen,” says Cycling Weekly’s Brown.