In this series, ‘What if?’, we have a look at points in cycling history where a certain event or rider going slightly differently could have had an interesting impact on that race, or indeed the future of the sport. Cycling is packed with such moments, as are all sports, and this is the opportunity for some wild speculation on to what would have happened if such an event had occurred…
Last time, we looked at what might have happened had Lance Armstrong’s Astana team managed to snip an extra 0.23 seconds off their team time trial time, which would have given the American the yellow jersey (https://sicycle.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/what-if-astana-had-been-0-023-seconds-faster-in-the-2009-tour-de-france-ttt/). This scenario involves the next years Tour, although one of the protagonists is the same – one Alberto Contador. Indeed, Contador will probably feature in a great deal of these “what ifs”, which goes a way to show that he has, depending on your view point, either been involved in a large number of controversial races or simply that he has featured in some very tense, exciting races. For instance, we could ask if he would have really won the Tour if Michael Rasmussen hadn’t left in 2007, how the 2011 Giro would have played out without him given his eventual ban, and indeed, whether the 2011 Tour was overly influenced by his presence (a particularly interesting case). Still, for now we’re concentrating on the affair that has become, as these things do these days, as “Chaingate.”
After 2009 became the Armstrong comeback Tour in more ways then one, almost overshadowing Contador’s overall victory, there seemed to be relief early on in the 2010 Tour when Armstrong was quickly out of the running after the cobbled stage to Arenberg. Armstrong had actually started quite well – he had come 4th behind only Cancellara, Martin and Millar in the opening prologue, putting 5 seconds into now ex-teammate Contador, as Armstrong had moved on to his newly formed RadioShack squad. However, the cobbled stage and a series of crashes knocked the stuffing from Armstrong’s challenge, which meant the real duel was between Alberto Contador of Astana and Andy Schleck of SaxoBank.
The pair had only raced each other at one previous Grand Tour – the 2009 Tour, where Contador had, in normal terms, thrashed everyone, beating the next best man, the 24 year old Andy Schleck, by 4 minutes 11 seconds. Schleck had beaten third placed Armstrong by a further 73 seconds, but after his impressive performance in 2008, where despite losing time to a hunger knock he had probably been the strongest climber, working well to disrupt the chase behind Carlos Sastre on Alpe d’Huez before dancing away to take third place (losing the sprint for 2nd to Sammy Sanchez), he was expected to mature to the position of leader and provide a worthy challenge to Contador and the Spaniard’s ambitions of a third Tour success. Contador had already completed the quickest assembly of a career Grand Tour Grand slam in history, having won the 2007 Tour as well as the Giro and Vuelta in 2008, and so was clearly the preeminent force in stage racing – he would be a huge challenge for Schleck to overcome.
Pre-Tour form seemed to confirm that it would be Contador who would be the favourite rather than the up and coming Schleck. Contador had won the Volta a Algarve, Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, as well as coming third in Fleche Wallone and ninth in Liege. His form had however been questionable at the Dauphine, where despite coming second, he had been defeated by Radioshack’s Jani Brajkovic, and matched by both the Slovenian and the youthful American Tejay Van Garderen up Alpe d’Huez, although he had won the stage. Schleck, on the other hand, had done little by comparison – he hadn’t won a single race, with a 5th at Liege and 14th at the Tour de Suisse his best results. It looked likely then, that Contador would be ascending to his throne for a third time.
What actually happened
After the prologue, Contador had already managed to put a gargantuan, in the context of what was to come, 42 seconds into Schleck, which was a harrowing loss over just 8.9km, at just over 4.7 seconds a kilometre. Things almost got worse for Schleck when he was one of the fallers on the stage to Spa, where half the field came down on a diesel slicked descent. Luckily, Fabian Cancellara was beginning his role as “commissionaire Cancellara” and essentially neutralised the race (losing his yellow jersey to breakaway Sylvain Chavanel in the process, it must be noted) and allowed everyone to get back in touch.
The next battleground was the cobblestones, where the race fractured around the crash which took out Schleck’s brother, Frank. This was supposedly a good thing for Andy – many commentators felt that being let loose from the need to constantly look for one another would help Schleck flourish and attack more freely, although obviously losing a key teammate in the hills was a big blow. However, the moment was bittersweet – it split the field into a small group containing Schleck, his cobble loving teammate Cancellara, white jersey Geraint Thomas, World Champion Cadel Evans and Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd. This group charged across the cobbles as Contador chased behind, picking up Ryder Hesjedal before Hushovd dispatched the sprint. The novel thing however was that Contador trailed the group he had been in, which contained Alexander Vinokourov and came home at 53 seconds behind Schleck’s group, by an additional 20 seconds, having lost contact in the last kilometre due to a broken wheel.
The irony was, if Contador had only raised his hand to aknowledge the broken wheel, he would have been given the same time as Vinokourov’s group due to the last kilometre rules on mechanicals and crashes. Hence, Contador would have lost only 53 seconds rather than the 73 he actually lost, which meant his deficit to Schleck was 31 seconds, rather than the 11 it arguably could have been.
The first mountain battle was to Morzine Avoriaz, where Schleck kicked away with Samuel Sanchez just after the one kilometre banner. Contador was unable to follow, and later blamed “breathing difficulties” – one of his many excuses, which I’ll get to in another post, as he always seems to have something wrong with him. Schleck won the stage and added a further 10 seconds to his time over Contador, then took the yellow jersey for the first time the next day once an unfortunate Cadel Evans, with cracked elbow from the day before, succumbed to his injuries and dropped off the lead group. Following an entertaining descent over the Madeleine, Schleck and co caught the break almost on the line, although Sandy Casar still had the nous to win the stage.
The only hiccup for Schleck was on the short climb to Mende, where on the viciously steep slopes he lost the 10 seconds he had gained at Avoriaz, although it arguably could have been more if Contador had driven for the line rather than played for the stage win with eventual winner Joaquim Rodriguez. Despite that, Schleck still looked in a good position. Contador didn’t look to be at his 2009 climbing form. Schleck looked to be climbing better than before, at least on the longer climbs. He had a few mountain stages to come, and a 31 second lead to try and pad out before the final time trial. Things looked good.
The What if – Chaingate
On the stage to Bagneres de Luchon, the final difficulty of the day was the climb up the Port de Bales, before a descent into the dozy mountain town below. Moutain stages that end with a descent have a reputation for being pretty dull, as riders don’t bother attacking because they figure everyone can catch them up on the descent, so they’re really just attritional survival days that nobody is hugely interested in apart from breakaways. And indeed, the breakaway won today – French Champion Thomas Voeckler, no less. With only a couple of kilometres to go to the summit of the 1755m high Port de Bales, the yellow Jersey, Andy Schleck, attacked…
What actually happened
Schleck attacked a couple of kilometres from the top of the climb, in what appeared to be the big ring. He quickly got an impressive gap, and when an Astana rider appeared in the distance chasing after him, it was not Contador, but Vinokourov. Only a few seconds later however, Schlecks rear wheel rose from the ground sharply before slamming back to the ground, and he noticeably lost momentum. Oddly, the front on shot suggests he wasn’t changing gear at the time. Quickly it became apparent that his chain had unshipped from the chainring and was between the frame and the inner ring, and whilst Schleck helplessly flailed with his SRAM gears to try and bring it back onto the gears, Contador noticeably changed course to avoid the essentially stopped and prone Schleck, which made his later claims not to have noticed Schleck pretty laughable, especially given his constant looking over the shoulder to see where his rival was.
Schleck wasn’t far behind by the time of the summit, but with Contador teaming up with Spanish buddy Sanchez, lost time to the duo on the descent to arrive fuming that “his stomach was full of anger” and proclaiming he would “have my revenge.” Contador played the innocent party for a few hours before issuing a slightly vague and actually not all that apologetic (to Schleck, anyway) video saying he didnt want to race that way, but the damage was done – he had his 39 seconds gain, and so was 8 seconds clear of Schleck.
Obviously, the question here is whether Schleck would have won the 2010 Tour if “Chaingate” hadn’t happened. To examine, we need to look at where the pair gained time over each other, which is fairly easy – there were only 6 stages where either of them didn’t finish on the same time as one another:
Prologue – Alberto Contador (6th) beat Andy Schleck (122nd) by 42 seconds – Contador leads by 42 seconds
Stage 3 – Andy Schleck (5th) beat Alberto Contador (13th) by 73 seconds – Schleck leads by 31 seconds
Stage 8 – Andy Schleck (1st) beat Alberto Contador (5th) by 10 seconds – Schleck leads by 41 seconds
Stage 12 – Alberto Contador (2nd) beat Andy Schleck (5th) by 10 seconds – Schleck leads by 31 seconds
Stage 15 – Alberto Contador (7th) beat Andy Schleck (12th) by 39 seconds – Contador leads by 8 seconds
Stage 19 – Alberto Contador (35th) beat Andy Schleck (44th) by 31 seconds – Contador leads by 39 seconds
Realistically then, it is perhaps harsh to ascribe all the blame to Contador’s cheeky attack when Schleck lost his chain, as the far larger loss was in the prologue. Of course, saying things like “if only Schleck had ridden a faster prologue” is nonsense – if someone told you you should have just ridden faster after you finished a time trial marinating in lactic acid and screaming for mercy from the pain, you’d tell them where to go, but something seemed to be up given that the rate of time loss in the time trial went from 4.719 seconds per kilometre in the prologue (8.9km) to 0.596 seconds per kilometre by the final 52km time trial. If Schleck had managed even double that in the prologue, he would have lost only 11 seconds, which would have left him 31 seconds better off. But hey, prologues are different to full on TT’s, so its unfair to compare them.
As for chaingate, the whole thing boils down to whether Schleck would have lost or gained time on that stage had the mechanical incident not happened, and how that would have affected the rest of the race. For instance, Contador had no need to attack Schleck on the showdown stage on the Tourmalet, banking on his better TT ability – if Schleck had had a buffer, it would have no doubt seen Contador on the offensive. So would Schleck have gained time? Probably not, in fairness, and trying to be impartial. Schleck had got a gap, yes, and looked like it was likely he would have dropped Contador on the climb, but Contador still would have had teammate Vinokourov as well as the other GC contenders to help pull him back to the Luxembourgian on the descent, which given he took time out of him on it in reality, is fairly likely. Schleck wasn’t going to gain minutes with that attack, he would have gained seconds – which probably wouldnt have been enough to avoid being swept up again at the finish of the stage.
That would have left Schleck 31 seconds ahead of Contador, with two mountain stages to go – the Queen stage up to the Tourmalet summit, and a Sawtooth-profile one with 4 massive climbs in but a daft 60km descent to the finish. Realistically then, the battle to pad out leads was all about the Tourmalet. Of course, in the actual race, Schleck attacked as near as makes no distance to the bottom of the climb, and took Contador away at a high pace, which he punctuated with a few accelerations that went mostly unseen to the viewers due to the fact he did them sitting down. Contador managed one, almost token attack, and was pulled back by Schleck, although you got the impression Contador was reasonably comfortable. The thing is, Schleck would probably have been in the same situation as he was in the actual race – he still would have thought he needed more time for the time trial, so it’s likely the race would have been raced in a similar fashion. The question is whether Contador would have been quite so kind, so to speak, not to go for the stage win, and whether he would have tried to pinch a few seconds near the summit. It’s likely, but the fact that the pair had, not including the chaingate affair, come out of every previous mountain summit stage with the exact same time as each other suggests that perhaps the status quo would have been preserved.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Schleck would have taken his 31 second lead into the final time trial. Immediately, we could point out that Contador gained exactly this time in the time trial -“they would have been on equal time” you may cry. Possibly, but the difference would be that Schleck would have been in the yellow jersey – in the actual race, Contador was, and so Contador had the advantage of time checks. That said, they may have been a disadvantage to Contador in the race. Schleck was going faster than Contador early on, and the Spaniard was noticeably twitchy on his saddle and constantly adjusting his position, only to eventually eke out the time he needed. Perhaps then, if Contador hadn’t quite had the pressure of trying to match Schleck, he might have done better. But this discounts for the psychological state of Schleck in the yellow jersey. With a 31 second advantage to defend rather than an 8 second defecit to make up, Schleck would possibly have been in a better state of mind, plus of course he had the yellow jersey, infamous for making the wearer “ride like two men.” Not that that worked in 2011. That year, Schleck had a 57 advantage over Cadel Evans, and was in yellow, but conspired to lose 2 minutes 31 seconds. However, with Contador clearly not quite at his best and Schleck psyched for test, it seems possible that Schleck could have pipped the Spaniard to the crown.
Of course, many say will say such speculation is pointless, as Schleck is ultimately down in the record books anyway due to Contador’s positive tests (yes, plural – 50 pictograms per ml, on the rest day before the Tourmalet, 16 pg/ml the next day, then 7 two days later followed by 17 the day after that), but the point of Chaingate was that Schleck was arguably denied the glory and grandeur of riding onto the Champs Elysees in yellow by bad luck and some suspect attacking, rather than by outright cheating. For the 2010 Tour was, it seems ultimately decided by Schleck’s mechanical problem.
In the light of Schleck’s recent retirment, the whole thing is somewhat melancholy. Schleck was a great rider, one who’s personality unfortunately seemed to rile “fans” on the internet who decided he was some sort of wimp who should just ride a bit faster as if that was the easiest thing in the world. Schleck has a good palmares – He has the 2010 Tour de France, a Liege Bastonge Liege, and Tour de France stages won atop the Galibier and the Tourmalet. He can look back with pride on his career, but if only that chain hadn’t dropped off, perhaps the asterisk that will be forever attached to his 2010 triumph wouldn’t be necessary.