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.
- Earlier in the Tour, I’d noted that I hoped Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) wouldn’t win a farewell Tour stage because I couldn’t face the inevitable years of “was it a gift?” debates to follow. And I have to admit, I was so focused on my fear of that debate that I was blindsided when, by noon today, I was hit by the unexpected launch of must be at least six years worth of “should he have waited?” online blather. Well that’s just great. Now we have that and global climate change to look forward to.
- Me? I’m not terribly offended by the way things went down on the Port de Balês today. It is certainly regrettable that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) lost time and his yellow jersey due to a mechanical problem. And yes, I said “due to a mechanical problem,” and not “due to the scurrilous treachery of that bastard, non-English speaking Spaniard, Alberto Contador” for a reason.
Look, I understand that the whole chivalry and etiquette aspect of cycling is a dear tradition, and many of us, me included, take pride in that element of our sport. It's refreshing that ours is not a win-at-all-costs game. But it is still a sport, not a tea party, and maintaining proper manners at all times really isn’t the primary goal. Which is to say that, on occasion, I think we tend to get so caught up in our precious “unwritten rules” of cycling we forget how those rules mesh with what’s going on out on the road. We expect certain behaviors from riders in certain situations that we, as fans, have reduced to some trite phrase, like “wait for the yellow jersey.” But for riders, those situations are considerably more immediate, more complex, and more weighty. Adding to those unrealistic expectations, in the wake of events like today’s, there’s often a rush to regurgitate highlights of relevant case law and apply it to the current situation – all without considering what the situation on the road was when those gentlemen of yesteryear waited, or didn’t wait, as the case may have been. Point in the Tour, point in the stage, state of the race, parties involved, parties’ past history, time gaps at the moment – all conveniently ignored in the name of trying to find the angle that supports whatever conclusion has already been formed about the current situation. It all just creates a self-reinforcing cycle of unrealistic etiquette expectations on riders who are, after all, riding at anaerobic threshold and trying to win a goddamned grand tour.
So where should we draw the line on etiquette, specifically on the whole “waiting for yellow” debate that seems to be all the rage? Here’s what I think. If everyone’s rolling piano down the Normandy coast and the yellow jersey flats or rides himself into a ditch with 70k to go? Yeah, ease off the pedals a bit until he’s back on, or at least don’t attack looking for some GC seconds. But if you’re 3k from the top of the final climb of the second stage in the second set of mountains, the win is on the line, and the attacks have started? I’m sorry, but at that point it’s game on and you can't expect too much courtesy. If the situation allows, it would be nice to call a little truce, but I’m not so sure there’s dishonor in not doing it when the momentum of the race has swung so drastically towards fighting out the finale. At some point, you just have to let the boys race their bikes, and stop worrying about who didn’t fold their napkin the right way before they put it back in their lap.
Even those more lenient guidelines, of course, assume that the riders involved know enough about what the hell is going on to make a conscious decision. And that’s a big assumption. When you’re on the rivet, crosseyed and flying up some thin-aired mountainside, simultaneously looking for seconds against the guy in front of you, guarding your own seconds from the two guys behind you, and launching your next move, I’m guessing things aren’t quite so clear as they are when you’re drinking a beer and watching the eighth slow-mo replay of the incident on your trusty Tivo. Yes, yes, they have radios, da da, da da, da da, and as much as “radio not working” is often used as an excuse for inappropriate behavior, the whole television-to team director-to rider relay system isn't nearly so perfect as some like to imagine. And the riders having the relevant information doesn't always mean they'll arrive at the same decision we would.
- You know what I think the really unfortunate part of today’s scandal-ette was? (I’ll warn you, my view won’t be the same as Andy Schleck’s.) I think it’s unfortunate that Contador gave people who’ve bought into two years of the Armstrong/Bruyneel “Contador’s a jerk” drumbeat something to grab onto. Do I believe Contador's actions today were some cheap, underhanded move? No, but if you’ve been conditioned to think he’s a cheap, underhanded guy, it was certainly close enough to confirm those beliefs, as well as sway a few folks on the fence, too.
- Interesting to note that reaction to the incident from the sport's old hands -- riders like Bernard Thevenet, Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, and even Schleck DS Bjarne Riis -- was a decided "ehhhh...it wasn't that bad." So much for "this never would have happened in the old days."
- SRAM has boots on the ground at the Tour de France, outfitting relevant folks on their sponsored teams with snazzy limited edition yellow-accented Red groups and doing all those other sponsor liaison types of things, I assume. In between exchanging pleasantries with the talent, however, might I suggest that they stop by the Saxo Bank mechanics' truck and start slapping some folks around? Between Cancellara and Breschel's brake rub issues at the Classics and Schleck's little issue today, they're kind of taking a beating on PR.
- I thought I’d make a little addendum to the part way above about Riblon and invisible riders, just to acknowledge the fact that riders that are invisible in some countries may not be so invisible in others. For all I know, Riblon is the Brent Bookwalter (BMC) of France, writing an online diary or doing interviews in his regional or national press that have had people checking the paper every morning to see how he fared that day. Now that we know about Riblon, maybe we’ll hope that someday soon, Bookwalter will suddenly be revealed to the French. He certainly woke up the Italians a few months ago.
- I have to hand it to them, Versus is nothing if not adaptable in their pandering. With their big draw Armstrong down on the standings and leaving this big attack everyone’s expecting mighty late, the American channel has quickly adopted a strategy to really focus on the teams competition, where Armstrong’s Radio Shack squad is apparently locked in a tight battle with Caisse d’Epargne. We’re not sure yet if Caisse is aware they're locked in a battle, or whether they're just trying to win a stage -- nobody's bothered to talk to them about it, preferring instead to let Bruyneel bloviate on a new topic. That's really just me being facetious, though: there's actually a pretty good chance that the Spaniards at Caisse has heard of the teams competition, and since, as Phil Liggett was fond of pointing out until just a week or so ago, it's just sort of a booby prize that only Spanish teams ever really take an interest in. Anyway, with limited RadioShack straws left to grasp at, the teams competition is suddenly the biggest thing going on Versus, including much posturing about Armstrong’s role in it. If Armstrong is seeking to play a role in an unprecedented intentional, non-Spanish assault on the teams classification, he’s been a late convert to the cause. The teams competition takes the times of the teams’ top three riders on each stage, and today’s stage marked the first time since Stage 9 that Armstrong was one of RadioShack’s top three riders on a stage. (For the record, Armstrong was RadioShack's was second man on Stage 9; eighth man on 10, sixth man on 11, fifth man on 12; seventh man on 13; fifth man on 14; and third on 15.)
- For me, Denis Menchov (Rabobank) has been one of the unsung revelations of this Tour. Yes, he’s won three grand tours already, so it’s tough to be a revelation, but his ability to follow the sharp accelerations of riders like Contador, Schleck, and Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in this Tour feels like a new addition to the skillset of one of the more time-trial dependent GC riders. If Contador and Schleck haven’t learned anything from their absurd level of man-to-man defense the last couple of days and keep screwing around, they could well let Menchov back in the race before the time trial. The rumour mill says Contador isn’t as sharp as last year, and if that’s the case in the TT, this week’s Menchov could pull of a surprise.
- Today’s Official Service Course Gerard Vroomen Twitter watch was a mixed bag, as he first took a well phrased stab at Contador: “Contador just gained a great chance to win, but he lost the chance to win greatly.” But later, he mellowed a bit, conceding, “Alberto has a tiny point: Schleck didn't wait for him after the cobblestone crash so complaints about fair play ring hollow.” Damn it, Gerard, you’re taking the fun out of it.
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...