Alberto Contador of Astana, back in the Tour de France overall leader’s yellow jersey he won in 2007 and 2009, has claimed that he was unaware that Andy Schleck had suffered a mechanical problem when he passed the Team Saxo Bank rider, whose chain had slipped just moments after launching an attack as the pair headed up the Port de Balès in Stage 15 of the race this afternoon.
The incident has polarised opinion in the cycling world over whether Schleck himself had made an error, meaning that Contador was justified in riding away from him up the road and to the top of the general classification, or whether he had been the victim of a mechanical problem. If the latter, it is argued, the Spaniard should have respected the Tour’s unwritten rule that the maillot jaune should not be attacked in such circumstances.
Schleck, whose 31-second advantage over Contador this morning had become an 8-second deficit by the end of today’s stage, is expected to lose time to Contador in Saturday’s individual time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac. The Luxembourg rider therefore knew he had to attack the Spaniard in the Pyrenees to try and gain precious seconds – minutes, ideally – on him to stand any chance of keeping the yellow jersey until Paris.
As a result, one rider’s chain slipping this afternoon may well turn out to have been the decisive moment of this year’s Tour.
Here’s how the drama unfolded. With stage winner Thomas Voeckler of Bbox Bouygues Telecom ahead on his own on at the top of the 20km climb, the last of the day, Schleck, whose Team Saxo Bank, closely shadowed by Astana, had forced the pace at the front of the group containing most of the big names in the GC, was continually looking over his shoulder as though to gauge when Contador was at his most vulnerable.
Finally, with around 3km of the climb left, Schleck made his move and accelerated hard. Contador’s team-mate Alexander Vinokourov responded immediately and grabbed the Saxo Bank rider’s wheel. But Contador, caught unawares, was slower to react.
Within moments, as Schleck apparently attempted to change into the big ring, his chain had slipped, his back wheel rearing up at the same time. By the time he’d managed to stop and get the chain back on, which took two attempts, Contador was off up the road and appeared to be riding hard to distance himself as much as possible from Schleck.
“I didn’t know anything about the problems with Andy Schleck, but when I realised it I was already ahead of him,” explained Contador afterwards, his remarks quoted on the Tour de France website. “The only things that I saw was that he was beginning to attack and then he slowed down. I didn’t realise that he had a problem with the bike,” he continued, adding, “when I attacked it was before he had the problem.”
While TV pictures suggest that Contador’s view of the incident itself was very likely blocked by Vinokourov, it took five seconds or so for him to ride past Schleck, who had by now slowed to an almost complete halt – enough time, perhaps, for the man who is probably the world’s best all-round rider to fully take stock of the situation and make a snap decision.
By the time Schleck was remounting his bike with two apparent bystanders getting ready to give him a push to get going, Contador was already a fair way ahead of him, and with the road swinging round to the left, the Spaniard took time to have a good look back towards his rival, then continued his charge towards the summit. There was no question of him waiting for Schleck to come back.
The latter managed to hit the top of the Balès some 16 seconds behind Contador, but the Astana rider, together with the man lying fourth in the GC, Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, was able to benefit from the sublime descending skills of third-placed Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, the trio coming home 39 seconds ahead of Schleck, who had pushed himself to the limit on the way down.
Schleck, who will almost certainly have to pull out something spectacular on the summit finish on the Tourmalet on Thursday if he is to claim the overall title in Paris – tomorrow’s stage into Pau has a very long descent to the finish which won’t suit him – said tonight: “Now I’m really angry. I will ride on the Tourmalet until I fall from my bike and give everything to this race.”
He continued: “I felt really good but what counted at the end of the day is the time that you have when you arrive at the finish and I was so far back even with what I did on the descent,” adding, “I promised my brother this morning that I wouldn’t take any risk on the downhill but I think I went down pretty fast... for me, let me put it that way. I didn’t want to lose too much time.”
However, both he and Contador were keen to point out that amid the chaos of Stage 2 of this year’s race, when both Schleck brothers fell on the treacherous descent of the Col du Stockeu, the Astana team leader had been among those to wait for the pair to get back to the peloton in a stage that was effectively neutralised by the riders before the finish in Spa.
“Things happen, and everything happens for a reason,” said Schleck this evening. “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,” he insisted.
Contador said that he and Schleck have “a really good relationship. In the sporting sense we also get along well, especially if you see what we did on the road to Spa,” he added.
The Astana rider continued: “In Spa, he had big crash but today when I attacked it wasn’t because I knew he had problems,” concluding “I’m sure he will attack me and I always have fear of what he might be able to do.”
So, what do you think? Did Contador really have no idea of what was going on? Race radios haven’t been banned yet, remember, though reception can be dodgy in the mountains. Should the Spaniard have sat up and waited? Or did Schleck simply make a hash of his gear change, meaning he has no-one but himself to blame? Let us know in the comments below.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.