Preface: The 2010 Tour de France will go down in history as one of the best. For three weeks, I was a tour junkie, memorizing rider numbers and team jerseys. I spent countless hours watching live TV coverage, which included helicopter fly-overs of picturesque villages, farmland, mountains and bike racers. In the third week, the drama unfolded, and my legs were twitching while I sat on the edge of the couch, cheering for the cyclists.
a Tour de France commentary
by Greg Larson
Thirty-nine seconds. That’s the difference in time between the first and second place finishers in the 2010 Tour de France bicycle race. It seems like such a small amount of time for a race that covers 2,100 miles over three weeks; a race whose history and facts can boggle the mind. The tour consists of twenty daily stage races which average over 100 miles per day. Each stage of the tour is selected to showcase a piece of France; from the farm country, the coastlines, and the Alps, to the Pyrenees, the Bordeaux wine country, and Paris.
Twenty-two teams with nine riders on each team compete in a race steeped in history and tour lore. For over one hundred years, millions of fans have come out to stand by the roadside. The most fanatical fans will camp and party for several days for the chance to catch a brief glimpse of the peloton (the main body of riders). If they are lucky, they might see their favorite rider or a quick flash of the maillot jaune (the race leader’s yellow jersey).
Thirty-nine seconds. That’s all that separated Alberto Contador (from Spain) and Andy Schleck (from Luxembourg) in 2010 at the end of the three weeks. Take a sip of wine and a nibble of brie, and you’ve used up the time between the winner and the loser after 92 hours of racing.
Participants who finish the Tour de France say their lives are changed forever. Most say they become a stronger rider. Even the weakest of the 198 riders are titans of the sport. On a bad day, they could ride circles around the best local club riders. Winners of each daily stage become a hero, and in Europe are revered in the same way the U.S. reveres baseball hall-of-famers. Winners of the overall race become historic legends.
The grueling event was even more difficult in its early years. In 1903, the first year of the race, many of the stages were over 250 miles in length. In 1910, the mountain stages were added. The winner that year, Octave Lapize, yelled “assassins!” to the organizers as he climbed into the Pyrenees on dirt roads that seemed more like cow paths. In 1927, the race began with 142 riders, but it was so difficult, the finishers totaled only 39 (there’s that number again).
The peloton becomes a community of riders, with a pecking order from statesmen to rookies. Each rider has a specific job for his team. Some are sprinters seeking a one-day win. Others are mountain climbers. Some are hired to be domestiques or workers for the team. They carry drinks and food from the team car up to the team leaders. The team leaders are the best overall riders who have hopes of finishing in the top ten at the end of the tour. The domestiques protect their team leader each day by riding in front of him, into the wind. They want their leader to be fresh and ready to attack (ride aggressively) at the end of the day, with the hope that he will win the day and keep a low overall time.
There is an unwritten code of ethics within the peloton. The domestiques will give their wheels or their entire bike to the team leader if he has mechanical problems, a crash, or a flat tire. If one of the overall contenders crashes or has a mechanical problem, the statesmen or leaders of the race will ask the peloton to slow down and wait for the man in trouble to catch back up to the group.
In 1934, René Vietto was a young rider supporting his team leader, Antonin Magne. Twice in the Pyrenees, René sacrificed his chances of winning and gave a wheel to his leader when Magne was in need. To this day, Vietto is known as “King René” for his devotion to the unwritten laws of the race.
More recently, the code was honored between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, the dominant race leaders for many years. When Lance’s handlebars were caught in a fan’s bag and he crashed, Jan slowed down for Lance. During another tour, when Jan crashed into a ditch, Lance and his team slowed down to wait for Jan.
Thirty-nine seconds. Although it is a small margin between first and second place, it is not the smallest. In 1989, U.S. rider, Greg LeMond, won by a mere eight seconds. On the last day of the tour, Greg was trailing two-time Tour de France champion Laurent Fignon by 50 seconds. The course was a fifteen mile time-trial onto the Champs-Elysées in Paris, with each rider racing separately against the clock. Greg used prototype aero-bars attached to the handle bars, in order to improve his aerodynamics. But there was a problem. When he tested the bike before the race, the aero-bars were too loose. The mechanics tried to tighten them, but Greg was not satisfied.
Greg told the mechanics, “I pull hard on the bars with every pedal stroke.”
With just minutes before the start, a mechanic grabbed some tin snips and a Coke can, and created some aluminum shims. Voilà! The bars were tightened to Greg’s satisfaction and he rode an historic time trial with an average speed of 33.8 miles per hour. When Fignon crossed the finish line and saw that he had lost the three-week race by eight seconds, he collapsed… a broken man.
After two weeks of racing in the 2010 Tour de France, it was evident that Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck were the crème de la crème of the peloton. They were evenly matched in the mountains. Each attacked and tested the other, but neither seemed to have the overpowering strength or the upper hand to control the overall outcome. After fourteen stages, Andy wore the leader’s yellow jersey, and led Alberto by thirty-one seconds.
On the final climb of Stage Fifteen, Andy attacked. With a lead of about 50 meters, he accelerated ahead and shifted to gain more speed. Unfortunately, his rear wheel hit a small pot hole just as he shifted. This caused his bike chain to whip and slip off the gear ring. Andy spun his pedals, but with the chain unattached, he coasted to a stop.
Alberto had a choice. He could ask the other leaders to slow down for a few hundred meters and wait for Andy to reconnect his chain or he could attack. There was no hesitation. Alberto and the third and fourth place contenders attacked with the speed of fugitives on a jail break, leaving Andy on the road, trying to put his chain back onto the ring. Finally, after precious seconds were used to reconnect the chain, Andy was back on his bike, chasing Alberto with all his heart. But it was in vain. Alberto and the others had sped ahead, over the pass and down the other side of the mountain. At the end of the day’s race, Alberto had gained thirty-nine seconds, and held an overall lead of eight seconds over Andy.
When Andy crossed the finish line for the day, he was visibly upset. During an interview, he said that if Alberto were to have a mechanical problem, he would have waited for him. In the heat of the moment, Andy said he was going to get revenge with Alberto for what he had done.
At the ceremony that day, the fans booed Alberto when he was awarded the yellow jersey. Many did not like the fact that he had taken advantage of a mechanical problem to gain time on his rival. Other fans argued that Alberto attacked in “the heat of the battle,” and his actions were justified.
Once their emotions cooled down, both riders apologized for what was said and done. They hugged each other and said they were friends. Not a racing fan in Luxembourg believed it.
On Stage Seventeen, the final mountain stage up the Col du Tormelet, Andy accelerated with six miles of the climb remaining to the mountaintop finish. Alberto responded, and they rode wheel-to-wheel at an excruciating pace. Halfway to the finish, Alberto attacked, but Andy responded with his own acceleration. When he caught up to Alberto he gave him a look as if to say, “Don’t do that again…you’re wasting your energy.”
Fog and mist shrouded the two riders during the historic climb. The fans screamed and waved their flags. Drunken men wearing costumes or Speedos ran alongside the cyclists. The official motorcycle escort, with horns and sirens blaring, parted the crowd as the riders ascended. But Alberto and Andy were in a world of their own, oblivious to the chaos on the mountainside. They crossed the finish line together, with Alberto allowing Andy’s wheel to cross the line first. Then they put their arms around each other.
Alberto still had the overall lead, ahead of Andy by eight seconds.
Finally, the decisive thirty-one mile time trial of Stage Nineteen arrived. Most believed it was impossible for Andy Schleck to gain time on Alberto Contador. Experts said he would lose two minutes to Alberto, who was a time-trial specialist.
Andy rode his heart out. At the first time check, he had gained six seconds on Alberto. The pressure was on as the outcome of the three-week race hung in the balance, dependent on the abilities of the two racers that day. As further time checks were given, Alberto had gained time back from Andy, and at the finish line he had beaten Andy by thirty-one seconds, for an overall lead of…you guessed it…thirty-nine seconds.
On the final stage to Paris the next day, the leaders agreed to a ceremonial ride; the current tradition being the overall contenders do not try to gain time on each other on the last day. Paris closed the busiest street in the world, the Champs-Elysées, to showcase the sprinters as they raced eight laps to finish the world’s most famous bicycle race.
Thirty-nine seconds. They will be debated for years to come. Some believe Alberto Contador broke the unwritten code when he took advantage of Andy Schleck’s chain mishap. Others say, “c’est la vie”…the race mirrors life and whatever happens…happens. One can speculate that if Alberto had not attacked when Andy’s chain slipped off, the two would have finished with identical times at the end of the tour. But that didn’t happen. Alberto won his third Tour de France title, but Andy won the hearts of millions.