Monday, July 19, 2010


Invisible Men and Unwritten Rules

Before we get into the trackstanding, shadowboxing, chaindropping, non-waiting shenanigans amongst the GC contenders over the last several days, let’s spare, if we can, a moment for the stage winners.

On Sunday, Christophe Riblon (AG2r), a 29 year old Frenchman, scored what’s become one of my favorite kinds of Tour victories. In attaining his dramatic win at Ax-3 Domaines, it was, of course, admirable that he struck out in the early break, persevered, and played his cards right (and had a few cards fall his way, too). It was a great ride, and it’s by far the biggest result of his five-year professional career. And I certainly enjoy all of those aspects of his win. Going beyond the feel-good story, though, I like victories like Riblon’s for a different reason. They remind us of the existence of the unseen multitudes of the peloton, those riders who aren’t stars, child prodigies, right-hand men, countrymen, or even likely winners. Most of the time, they’re doing donkey work hauling bottles for team leaders who aren’t even top contenders themselves. But every once and awhile, one of them – like Riblon – makes himself seen.

When they do appear, it can feel as if they’ve suddenly popped up out of nowhere, like their mothers packed them into the back seat of the family Citroen that morning and dropped them off fresh at the Tour de France with a pan au chocolate in their hand and a good luck pat on the back. But we know that’s not the way it happened, and that’s part of the magic. With wins like Riblon’s on Sunday, we’re reminded that those invisible riders have, in fact, been there on the Tour all along. Though he’s probably crossed our screens hundreds of times, we never really got to see Christophe Riblon. But he was there: He rode the prologue. He descended the greasy slopes of the Stockeau. He banged over the cobbles of the north. He crossed the Alps. All in anonymity, until one revealing day on the Port de Pailhères.

So was this some sort of starting point for Riblon? Will Ax-3 Domaines be that key win that lends unstoppable momentum to some nascent morale or confidence, leading to more triumphs? Hell if I know. And back in 2004, we didn’t know how grabbing the yellow jersey for 10 days would affect little Thomas Voeckler, then the underwhelming 25-year-old champion of France. As it turned out, that little stint in the public eye – and the dogged determination he showed during it – suited Voeckler well, maybe even made him a better rider. Since becoming the spunky little brother to all of France in the 2004 Tour, he’s evolved into a capable stage winner, a hunter of mountains classifications points, and a contender in the French classics. He’s 31 now, no young pro anymore, but seeing him winning at the Tour again in the bleu-blanc-rouge today at Bagnères du Luchon was like seeing a sort of homecoming, or a flashback depending on your own personal history. I suspect it’ll feel the same if he does it again at 35, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

As for Alexander Vinokourov’s win in Revel the day before the French double header described above, I enjoyed it. When I watch Vino ride, the expression that Bostonians had for longtime Red Sox left-fielder Manny Ramirez’s sometimes questionable behavior always springs to mind: "it’s just Manny being Manny." Saturday’s ride was just Vino being Vino: impulsive, exciting, and committed. It’s something the grand tour formula of recent years has often been missing. As for those who don’t find much to love in the win given his history, I get that. The way I see it, though, the sport's governing body can set rules and demand that those caught breaking them serve suspensions as punishment. But it can’t demand remorse. I suppose fans can demand it in their own way, and in Vino’s case, a good number certainly are. But if that remorse isn’t genuine, what’s the point? Frankly, I just appreciate that he’s not bullshitting us with the daily self-flagellation of faux regret. We all know what happened – I just assume get on with it.

And now, on to debates over gentleman and scoundrels, chivalry defrocked, and traditions of the ages rent asunder. Or maybe we'll just talk about that whole dropped chain thing. I haven’t really decided yet.


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Thank you thank you thank you Ryan, for far and away the best (English speaking) analysis of today's events. Yet again you enunciated for me my feelings far better than I ever could. I remain forever in your debt. Keep up the good work, and keep the rubber side down, bro!
I'd forgive Contador for a perhaps minor breach in ettiquette, if he hadn't lied about it afterwards and claimed he had no idea. That was Vino on Schleck's wheel; Contador was 15 or 20 yards back and just starting to respond to the attack when Schleck dropped the chain. Have you ever been on a hard group ride or in a race behind somebody, when you didn't just about instantly know they dropped their chain?

Cue the Contador apologists: But it's different. They're pros and they don't think like you so there's no reason to suspect Contador knew the chain was off...

But then rationality doesn't always enter into it. A lot of how we think about pros comes down to whether we like their style or not, and the arguments we make are merely justification. Luca Damiani, for instance, is an arrogant and insecure ass, but I like him. Contador just rubs me the wrong way with what appears to be a world class case of false modesty. But then I'd find some way to like Damiani no matter what he shot into his veins and no matter how bad his stupid and predictable little mid-race panics cost him in the standings; I'd find a way to dislike Contador even if it turned out he's operating a chain of clinics for poor children in Calcutta. So what do I know...
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