Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Scott Sunderland makes Hushovd's mind up for him over Stage 2. And still we go on about "fairness"

I wasn't there so I don't know - but I have an opinion on the question of "fairness". And it's a saga that goes on and on, regrettably, without a solution. And isn't that the way everything works these days? The tiniest detail gets pounced upon and sides are taken, black or white. If it sticks and goes viral it snowballs out of all proportion but no agreement is reached or solution offered.

Andy Schleck's so-called "mechanical" when he somehow "lost his chain" (when in fact it appeared to jam on his cogs, as if he'd stuffed up a gearchange) is one example, and Stage 2 into Spa is another one. And now in post-race analysis Scott Sunderland appears to be putting his (possibly biased, being an ex member of what was the CSC team) views into Thor Hushovd's mouth. As well as putting Contador in his place for not waiting for Andy when his chain jammed. But what exactly is "fair"? Is it so black and white?

Now on the day into Spa it appeared (on TV and in post-race interviews, anyway) that Thor Hushovd wasn't very pleased about the bullying tactics used by Cancellara and the Saxo Bank team to annul the slippery stage. So to say that Thor wouldn't have wanted to win like that is certainly going a bit far. If Thor has changed his mind, great - let him say that himself

Now in principle we probably agree that gaining time by leveraging other riders' misfortune is not how we would like to win a race. But it assumes several things:
  • Firstly that only the lucky got through unscathed, which is debatable. Wet, narrow descent with or without a crashed motorbike says "keep clear of other riders, slow down, pick your line" to me
  • Secondly, a corollary to the first, that skill was not involved. Again, bike handling and the ability to pick your line is paramount
  • Thirdly, that all teams played the conditions the same and were equally affected, which is not true. There was a breakaway and a chase group plus a larger group, all playing out different tactics. There are safer ways to play dangerous situations and some teams did better than others by design
  • Fourthly, that an independent referee is available to assess the conditions and make an informed but unpressured and one-step-removed decision on conditions and actions to address. Which is debatable. The race referee was certainly there but his decision was visibly informed by Cancellara, who had an obvious (and conflicted) role in firstly waiting for the Schlecks and secondly in coercing other riders from other teams into a go-slow agreement.  
Now the other side to the argument is that an unusually large proportion of riders were affected and that several riders reported conditions where "everyone" went down and that even cars couldn't stay on the road. In which case you'd think that the stage should be annulled there and then, rather than let one rider win and take yellow whilst effectively penalising anyone else who'd recovered or avoided the drama.

It's not as if it hasn't happened before. There was for example Le Tour in 1999 when an unusually large proportion of the field went down and lost 6 minutes or more - effectively ending the race for the overall there and then. But Armstrong isn't likely to hand back that Tour win because he didn't wait for Zulle, is he? Indeed his team and others actively exploited the situation. Riders are down, big fall - let's stomp on the gas!

There's always another side, another way to view things. In 1999 you had to get to the front. It wasn't just luck. The same applies in 2010, or perhaps should have applied.

You could say that we must learn for these things, and so we should. But one thing to learn from 2010 is that it isn't appropriate for race officials to appear to do a deal with the yellow jersey where obvious conflicts of interest exist. There must be a better, fairer way to deal with such situations. It isn't necessarily easy but leaving it 'as it is' is inappropriate.

Oh, and jamming your chain is just one of those things that can happen when you make ham-fisted changes on the highly-tuned engineering kludges we call bicycle drivetrains.

Where The Tour Was Won |
Sunderland: "I think the same logic should be applied to the green jersey competition. Thor Hushovd missed out on a lot of points that day but I don’t think he would have wanted to win that way."
1999 Tour de France - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The 1999 edition of Tour de France had two bizarre moments. The first was on stage 2 when a 25 rider pile-up occurred at Passage du Gois. Passage du Gois is a two mile causeway which depending on the tide can be under water. The second bizarre incident was on stage 10, one kilometre from the summit of L'Alpe d'Huez. Leading Italian rider Giuseppe Guerini was confronted by a spectator holding a camera in the middle of the road. Guerini hit the spectator but recovered and went on to win the stage.
The Tour de France At A Glance - 1999
Frankie Andreu: The main difficulty in this completely flat stage was a four-kilometer causeway that crossed a huge river. It's passable during the day with low tide and flooded during high tide. You can imagine that the causeway would be a little slick and wet by the time we arrived.

The race was calm till the first bonus sprint of the day at kilometer 30. After that the attacks started and the battle for good position for the causeway was already starting. It was still 50 kilometers till we arrived there. To make matters worse it was windy and I'm sure every team told their riders to be first into the causeway.

The battle was furious trying to keep Lance in good position to get across this causeway safely. Looking back it was a good thing we did. After the entrance to this four-kilometer causeway there was a huge crash. Guys went down everywhere. You could see riders trying to brake, but they hit the ground instantaneously. Going across the causeway was very, very scary. It was wet, slippery and windy. It felt like a risk to even turn your wheel to change directions. I was scared to ride on the edge of the road because it was too slick.

Coming out of the causeway the group had split - partially because we went fast and partly because of the huge crash. There was a front group of about 40 and immediately ONCE started riding. It took us a few kilometers to figure out why. We didn't know there was a crash at the time and in the rear group there were a few favorites.

Right away Johan told us to go to the front and help ONCE. The reason was that in the second group were Gotti, Belli, Zülle, Boogerd, Robin, and some other favorites in the overall.

In the second group Banesto started to chase immediately. They came within 30 seconds of catching us, but we were in time-trial mode in the first group with about ten guys. It became an 80-kilometer team time trial, trying to increase the gap between the second group and us. We had five ONCE riders, two Casino, two Cofidis, and Christian and I riding full tilt all the way to the finish. We put over six minutes on the guys behind. Lance lost the jersey today to Kirsipu, who won every bonus sprint, but Lance did manage to eliminate some very strong riders for the classement.

In the race today the Spanish guys had a new nickname for Jonathon Vaughters. They called him "El Gato", the cat. He got the name after he flew into a crash yesterday and went flying. Somehow he landed on his feet; he didn't get a scratch on his body. The bad news is that today Jonathon lost his nickname. He was one of the unlucky ones to get caught in the crash on the causeway.
1999- The Clean Tour - RideStrong
So the Tour had an undeniably "clean" winner, though his (Armstrong's) domination was not the unnatural performance that certain sections of the French press tried to accuse him of. Take away the stage over the Passage de Gois, and his lead over Zülle is a rather more mundane-looking 1½ minutes. And the Tour threw up several other imponderables. There were no French stage winners for the first time since 1926. The transition stages saw breaks of minor riders gain huge leads each day, with the big stars seemingly content to have four days off. Yet for all the drug-free culture, the average speed was over 40kmh for the first time ever. Even allowing for the easier route this year (and arguably it was in fact a harder route than some of those in the seventies and eighties), one is left with questions. If a drug-free peloton could ride so fast, what was the point of taking EPO in the past? And if EPO does have an effect, was 1999 really a drug-free peloton?
SBS: Tour de France 2010: Dangerous course or dangerous force?
It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed this much carnage at the Tour de France.

The last occasion I can recall such circumstances was 11 years ago, at the 1999 Tour.

What was thought to be a relatively innocuous second stage quickly turned into a massacre, when on the Passage du Gois, a two-mile long causeway that depending on tidal conditions can be submerged in water, a 25 rider pile-up eventuated that split the field to itty bitty pieces and left Lance Armstrong’s most noted adversary, Swiss rider Alex Zülle, behind in a frantic chase that never regained contact.

Zülle along with Jan Ullrich were arguably the only two riders to really challenge the Texan during his Tour reign, and Armstrong’s 7’37” winning advantage did not really tell the full story.

I’m not saying Zülle would have beaten Armstrong in the first of his seven straight wins, but had he not crashed, the race would without doubt have played out very differently.
SBS: Tour de France 2010: Dangerous course or dangerous force?
But read this from cycling legend Eddy Merckx, who told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf after Stage 1: “It’s part of the job. Especially in the beginning of a Grand Tour, you can not blame the organisation. It is the riders themselves who [must] bear the blame. If you do not want to brake and if you are not afraid to go for an opponent who is faster, then do not be afraid of crashing.”

In the end Monday, the Schleck brothers were saved by an entente cordiale initiated by the erstwhile maillot jaune of Fabian Cancellara, who relinquished his golden fleece to perhaps the most popular guy in France right now, Sylvain Chavanel.
Where The Tour Was Won |
Scott Sunderland: "Contador pulled on the yellow jersey in Luchon but when he heard the crowd whistle and boo him, I'm sure he realised he'd unfairly taken advantage of Andy's mechanical problem."

'I know the race was 'on', that everything was decided in split seconds and the other riders attacked too, but Contador was the first to go clear and kept going all the way to the finish thanks to a special 'friendship' with Samuel Sanchez, who guided him down the descent."

I think he should have at least of asked the other riders to wait. I know these guys are competing against each other but there must always be room for some sportsmanship in cycling. The riders share the same road and face the same difficulties. Alberto is a special champion but missed an opportunity to show he has a special sense of fair play."