Sunday, August 01, 2010

Racing - A Question Of Honor

From Versus TV on YouTube

So we've all hashed out "Chaingate" in this year's Tour. Basically Andy Schleck, leading the overall, had a drivetrain "issue", making it necessary for him to dismount his bike to fix it. Since this was at a critical moment of the race (Schleck was literally in the middle of an attack), he quickly lost some time. Contador, sitting a very close second overall, gained distance on Schleck, taking the yellow at the end of the stage. Ultimately Contador won the Tour by exactly the time gained by this very attack.

The question is, of course, was attacking at this time acceptable?

A majority of folks have said no. Very few have said yes.

I wouldn't be writing a post if I didn't agree with the latter. I said this when I first heard what happened, and then, to make sure that I wasn't going on hearsay, I looked a bit into the actual video of the incident (which I've linked to above).

So, laying it on the table, I think Contador was okay in attacking Schleck at that time.

Interestingly enough, Riis (Schleck's director) himself doesn't criticize Contador's attack. Of course, he may have known that Schleck planned to leave Riis's team at the end of the year, so Riis might have been getting in a little dig. But I don't think so, and Riis has generally been supportive of his racers up to the moment they leave the team.

An interesting voice supporting Contador is that of Sastre. He attacked in a later stage when a GC contender (Sammy Sanchez) fell pretty hard. Sastre (and his team) had planned on setting up a point man in the early break, allowing Sastre to bridge to the break and having an ally waiting there.

Sastre's legs failed him though, and he never made it to the break. He actually lost a lot of time and ended any hopes of a high overall place.

Contador, perhaps remembering how the crowds treated him after the Schleck incident, told the field to wait for Sanchez. Then, properly integrated, they proceeded to shell Sanchez later.

Sastre's point after the race was that this is all about bike racing. It's not a post-Tour crit where the results are kind of negotiated before the race. Guys stake their whole season on the Tour, sometimes on just a day or two of the Tour, and you have to race when you race.

Cycling is a bit unusual in that there's an unwritten code of conduct that helps govern the group as a whole. They wait for one another, take pee breaks en masse, and lend each other food or water or even equipment or rides.

I can see how this evolved, with a small number of people always racing against each other. It's the same directors, same riders, same mechanics, same officials, all racing day in and day out against one another.

What you don't want to do is to get a bunch of riders mad at you. Like in any group of people you get some feuds. The Dutch teams notoriously feuded for a long time, with Jan Raas (director of Kwantum as well as other teams) fighting with Peter Post (of Panasonic). The feud got ridiculous, with each team riding so much against each other that they'd let a third party win major races.

Another feud occurred between a US team, Motorola, and a Dutch team, PDM (a separate Dutch team). PDM, after Motorola's actions upset them (Motorola signed Andy Bishop away from PDM), retaliated by working specifically against Motorola. Their then director even made references to these actions in the Tour du Pont coverage. He pulls up next to the Motorola director and point blank asks why Motorola is chasing a solo PDM rider. Motorola had no reason to chase - PDM's podium threat, Lemond's Z team, was leading the chase.

The Motorola director has no answer - he sounds like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The PDM director angrily replies.

"You remember what we did after Andy, eh?"

Then he floors it and pulls away, which, I have to admit, isn't very impressive when you're doing it in the anemic GM minivans lent to the teams for the race.

Of course, at that moment in the race, PDM was trying to break Z's legs, forcing the Z team to chase a PDM rider all over the countryside. Motorola stepped in, lent their tremendous power to the chase, and brought the PDM interloper back into the fold. Motorola didn't need to do that - the solo rider was well under control, and Z was plugging away steadily at the front, using up their guys, trying to time the catch so that there'd be little time for any counters.

Two different teams, one (Motorola) sticking their noses into a situation which didn't concern them (they just wanted the stage win, which they got), the other (PDM) doing their job. PDM had more significant aspirations - they wanted to break their GC rival's team, and they sacrificed a guy to do it.

So what's that got to do with Chaingate?

It's all the unwritten rules of the sport. Motorola was breaking one; PDM was trying to enforce it.

What's interesting about cycling is that they actually write down some of the unwritten rules. For example, USA Cycling has this concept of a "Free Lap". In a race that does laps, if you have laps less than a certain distance, you can receive mechanical assistance at designated spots on the course ("pits"), and rejoin the race a lap later.

The idea here is that a rider shouldn't necessarily be penalized for a mechanical or a crash.

Sound familiar?

It should, because this is the written version (for crits) of the unwritten version (for road races).

In crits, until 5 miles to go, you can get a free lap. You have to have crashed or had a mechanical, and if it's a mechanical, it has to be a failure of some point. It cannot be a simple malfunction (like you drop your chain, ahem, or roll an improperly glued tire). Mechanicals need to be beyond the rider's control - broken spoke, bent rim, broken saddle, stuff like that. If the bike isn't adjusted right, that's not a mechanical. If it breaks, it is.

However, and this is key, the free lap rule expires with 5 miles to go. Or 8 km, as officially written. What the written rule says is that although it's proper to allow someone a second chance after a mishap, you can't get that second chance in the last 5 miles of a race.

Think about it.

Basically, once the race gets into the "no backsies" stage, you don't get any free laps.

In a road race it's trickier, and therefore there are no written rules.

Unlike a crit or a circuit race, where racers cover the same course and see the same tactical choke points over and over, a road race typically presents very specific tactical points, and usually they're far apart.

Typical road race obstacles for us mere mortals would be things like any hill (for me) that's longer than a 200 meters. Corners would be an obstacle. A narrowing road. Descents. Feed zones. The racers see a variety of areas where they can make a move.

At the ProTour level, you can eliminate some of these tactical choke points. It takes, it seems, climbs of at least 1st Category or Hors Category to truly separate the racers. A mere 5 km climb just won't do it.

Winds play a huge factor, especially with the high speeds ridden by the ProTour peloton. A flat area hit with a big crosswind can shatter a race.

Finally, because ProTour riders expect to be able to stay together in some reasonable form, cobblestones and dirt roads become a factor. For us amateurs they don't make a difference simply because our expectations differ - we don't think our fields will stick together after even short hills on dirt roads. The pros, on the other hand, think they will, at least in a Grand Tour.

ProTour racers need to make their own decisions on what is "acceptable" and what is not. On Stage 2 of the Tour, after a series of crashes that took out something like 80 or 100 racers, the racers took it upon themselves to neutralize the race. In this case it seems a motorcycle crashed, cracking its block, and spread oil all over an already slick descent. Chaos ensued. Schleck, ironically, ended up one of the main beneficiaries on this day, when a potential multi-minute loss turned into a "same time" finish.

Stage 2's neutralization hinged on the fact that so many riders went down. Some teams escaped unscathed, with Cervelo Test Team prominently at the front, with green jersey contender Thor Hushovd and the aforementioned Carlos Sastre.

(And it begs me to ask, "What kind of tires and pressures did they run that they didn't fall over on the wet and oily roads?", because, to me, I wouldn't necessarily call any of the Cervelo Test Team racers "the best bike handlers ever".)

The next day, on Stage 3, the racers put their heads down and raced throughout the day. Schleck, led ably by Classics expert Fabio Cancellara, distanced some of his rivals. Again racers crashed throughout the day, but not in the numbers like the previous day. No one had in mind any idea to neutralize the race. In fact, Schleck continues on after his brother Frank takes a big enough digger that Frank withdraws from the race.

Fast forward to Stage 15, when Schleck launched a big attack. Almost as soon as he did, his chain derailled.

Contador, already responding to Schleck's move, rides by. Now, in a normal situation, if your chain falls off, you just pedal a bit and pick it back up. I've gone by plenty of riders that dropped their chain, and it's not a big deal.

(Unless you have Campy like I do, in which case, for some reason, the chain doesn't want to get picked up again; this is why I use an N-Gear Jumpstop. Personally I don't know how SRAM systems deal with chain drops; I know Shimano front ends work well to pick up dropped chains.)

Unfortunately for Schleck, it's one of those times. He has to hop off the bike to fix the chain, twice.

And that's that.

Contador doesn't look back for a bit - that's normal for a pro. Roy Knickman, in a Tour de L'Avenir, once described attacking the field, hammering for 20 (!!) kilometers, then turning around to see who was there. Even at an extremely fast pace, he didn't turn around for a good 20 or 25 minutes.

Now, Contador isn't in quite the same situation, but he did just commit to a big move. He bridges a gap to Menchov and Sanchez, both potential podium finishers, goes blowing by them, and then seems to pause. He backs off enough to let Menchov back on, turns off the gas (he lets Sanchez come through), and seems to think about it.

When Schleck doesn't return (and probably with an earful of director screaming at him), Contador pushes on.

I have to say that Paul Sherwen, talking about "fair play", helps fan the fires here. There's nothing about having to wait for someone who, at first glance, simply dropped their chain. That's the rider's fault (and his mechanic's).

Schleck dropped chain ended up forcing him to get off the bike, twice, and that's what caused the problems. Not the chain dropping itself, because often times a rider can fix that "on the fly". It's his dismounting that caused the problems.

If I dropped a chain in a crit, I don't get a free lap. This is because there's an assumption that a properly adjusted, properly ridden bike will not spontaneously drop its chain. Sure, I could really screw things up by, say, putting it in the big ring and big cog and pedal backwards furiously. I guarantee you that my chain won't be happy within a second or two.

And with Schleck's case, whatever it was that caused him to drop his chain, it wasn't a peloton-wide phenomenon. It wasn't a cracked motorcycle engine case spewing oil everywhere on a wet, curvy descent taking out half the field. It wasn't a SRAM defect (Contador rode a SRAM bike as well). It wasn't a stray spectator taking him out. There was no blood, no crash, no rider plummeting off a cliff.

The problem struck only Schleck, when he was essentially by himself, in the middle of the road, on a hill at a reasonable speed (albeit faster than you or me), on a sunny, clear, and dry day. For a bike racer there couldn't be more ideal conditions to be riding a bike.

His motions also indicated a minor problem. Looking down, shifting... they're all indicative of a dropped chain. In most cases it would take a second or so to pick up the chain, and the race would be back to normal.

However, Schleck panics. He dismounts as he slows. He only half-restores his chain at first, hits the crank with his leg when he jumps on the saddle, and promptly derails his chain again. He has to repeat his work, this time completely, then gets going.

If he had put his chain back on completely the first time, I suspect he'd have been literally a few meters off the back of Contador at the top of the climb. The second (and unnecessary) "fix" makes up for pretty much all of the 13 or 14 second gap at the top - it's a good 10 seconds for him to fix the chain that second time before the cameras cut away from him. At 15 seconds, when they return to him, there are two guys giving him a push to get started, but you could hardly call his speed "racing".

Ultimately, it's a race. When I make a move to win a race, I'm looking to demolish my opposition. I don't jump in a sprint half-heartedly, trying to be nice to the others. I jump as hard as I can, no mercy. I use what strength I have totally and completely.

I expect nothing less from my opponents. And judging by the speed by which I've been passed in sprints, they think similarly.

At the same time, I get handed the same treatment. At a Rent a few weeks ago, I clung on desperately as a far stronger racer drove the pace at the front. He turned around, saw me in trouble, and launched an even more ferocious attack.

I came off.

If I drop my chain off the crankset and can't pick it back up, I don't expect any mercy from the other racers. It's my responsibility to maintain my equipment, my responsibility to ride it sensibly.

This latter bit is key.

A rider has to take into account any equipment shortcomings.

If you choose to run fragile tires, you need to avoid glass and sharp potholes. If you run fragile wheels, you'll want to avoid those potholes. If you run an unusually low or high amount of tire pressure, you need to adjust for that when you, say, dive into a sharp turn.

At Bethel, I've avoid using the small chainring specifically so that I reduce the chances of dropping my chain. Fine, I have the N-Gear Jumpstop, but if I never shift the front derailleur, the chances of the chain dropping off get reduced to near-zero. So I carefully stay on the big ring, using a slightly wider range cassette so I have a "bail out" gear in the big ring. I carefully avoid backpedaling when waiting at the start.

I do this because I want to reduce the risk of dropping my chain. It's my responsibility to not drop my chain and I accept it.

Now, at the same time, if there are riders that have crashed, there's a chance I'll stop. I stopped at the first Bethel P123 race, when a bunch of guys crashed with two to go. I'd been working really hard to finish my first P123 race in probably a decade, and instead of pedaling around two more laps, I stopped to make sure the guys were reasonably okay.

Yeah, I promote the race. Yeah, I recognized a couple guys that fell. But no, there were no rules saying I should or shouldn't stop. The fact that the race finished in a big bunch sprint meant that many racers didn't stop.

Do I fault them?

Not at all.

Like them, in other races, I've kept racing after watching or hearing a crash. I didn't stop in Somerville every time someone crashed. Had I done so, I'd have learned that a few friends had crashed, and some had crashed hard. Ditto Harlem - I didn't stop for any crashes. Even the Keith Berger Crit, I left a couple riders behind me, on the deck, after watching them tumble.

But in Chaingate we're not talking about a crash. We're not talking about injury or sabotage. We're talking about a rider, essentially alone, who has a mechanical that requires absolutely no adjustment or part replacement to fix.

The bike worked before, and it worked after the incident.

The rider was alone. No one touched him, no one caused him to drop his chain. No one jammed a pump in his wheel (or into his chain).

If a racer's bike has a problem that requires no parts or adjustment to fix, and it happens in the most ideal conditions - on smooth roads, dry, warm, sunny, on a top line bike, with no one around, at reasonable speeds - then there's no reason for anyone to wait.

One can be respectful to one's opponents. But at some point it's a competition, and everyone has to race. Although crashes are a case by case situation, solo mechanicals are not. I may push a teammate who dropped a chain so that he can pick it back up, but if he stops to put the chain back on, I wouldn't expect him to get a free lap, nor would I expect the field to wait for him.

Even if he was in the Yellow Jersey. In the greatest race in the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm in complete agreement that Contador was in the right.

Stage 3 was a race which pitted the best riders against a challenging course. So it was not so much rider against rider as it was rider against the course. Anything can and did happen and the stronger/smarter rider prevailed.

In "chaingate", if you watch very closely, AS was on the attack. Vino began the chase to help out AC. AC saw what was going on 50 -75 meters ahead and then started his own chase. When AS had his misfortune and dismounted, AC was not obligated to wait for his "attacker" to fix his mechanical. There is a difference between flatting, breaking an essential component, crashing, and dropping a chain. It shouldn't have taken AS as long to reattach his chain as he did.

Did AC know something was wrong? Sure he did. You don't go flying by someone like he did without knowing something was wrong. Besides, AC's director probably saw the whole thing unfolding on the TV screen in the car and directed AC to put the gas on to distance him from AS.

So was AC in the right? Yes. Did it stink for AS? Yes. Will the debate over "unwritten rules" continue? As long as there are races and racers there will always be a debate over the rules. Written or otherwise.