2010 Tour de France’s defining moment

Obviously different people have different ideas about what a “decent spectator sport looks like…”

But if, like me, you’ve been following this year’s Tour de France you’ll no doubt agree with Steve Wilson’s praise for ITV4’s excellent coverage.

It’s been eventful too, and not just for being seven-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong’s final hurrah.  From the prologue in Rotterdam across the cobblestones of Belgium and northern France, and over the punishing peaks of the Pyrénées this year’s course has seen plenty of action.

If all goes to plan, behind a possible 5th stage win this year for Mark Cavendish, defending champion Alberto Contador will cross the line on the Avenue des ChampsÉlysées today with a lead of just 39 seconds over Andy Schleck.

And 39 seconds is precisely the amount of time Contador finished ahead of Schleck in this year’s Tour’s defining moment – when the Spaniard sprinted away on the climb of the Port de Balès, while the Luxembourg rider, and then yellow jersey holder, was trying to put his chain back on.

In doing so Contador broke one of the unwritten protocols of cycling, and in particular the Tour de France – you don’t attack the yellow jersey when he’s experiencing a mechanical problem.

Richard Williams in the Guardian

Unlike golf, cycling is not smug about its unwritten protocols. They are not the inheritance of some dimly remembered public-school ethos but were forged in a furnace of pain, the result of a collective need to survive the tests offered by a day in the mountains in a race like the Tour de France.

That is why they are so important, and why the debate was so heated among the Tour’s followers in the hours after Contador had taken the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck in Bagnères-de-Luchon. The Spaniard sprinted away to the top of the last climb of the day, the Port de Balès, while the Luxembourg rider was trying to put his chain back on, held on to a lead of 39sec at the finish, and took the race’s overall leadership, which Schleck had held for six days.

Schleck’s misfortune occurred just after he had launched what he obviously hoped would be the attack to increase his 31sec lead over Contador by a significant margin, thus weatherproofing him against his expected losses in Saturday’s time trial. The chain came off when Contador was about 20m behind, and the Spaniard’s claim that he was unaware that anything was wrong with Schleck did not have the ring of truth, not least because in the process he also overtook his own team-mate, Alexandre Vinokourov, who certainly knew what was happening.

At the presentation ceremony after the stage, Contador was booed by the assembled crowd as Schleck watched on in silence.  Later that evening Contador posted this video on YouTube.

Richard Williams again

But nothing can change the fact that, in the heat of the moment, he rode on, and the mistake is one that he will have to live with, unless he also decides to find a way of giving back those lost 39 seconds to his opponent. Cycling keeps its history close to its heart, and incidents such as this are replayed in reminiscences and arguments down the decades. It may be that in those moments below the 1,755m summit of the Port de Balès, Contador created the defining moment of the 2010 Tour.

Update  Cavendish wins the stage, Contador the Tour.

And, as Ned Boulting says at the Telegraph blog

Small wonder then, that Christian Prudhomme couldn’t help smiling.

He has designed a Tour of some stature. Perhaps one of a clutch of truly memorable editions in the century-long history of the race.

Even the “nothing” stages have been something. The cobbles were epic, the Alps an hors d’oeuvre, the unpredictable transition stages through the massif central a masterstroke, the Pyrenees, with their extraordinary apotheosis in the mist of the Tourmalet were more than he could possibly have wished for.