Disrespecting the Yellow in the Tour de France

For the first time in decades, yesterday’s daily awarding of the yellow jersey to the Tour de France’s race leader had an audible mixture of applause and loud boos. The awarding of the yellow jersey to two time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador won’t be challenged because of any rule violations; it will be questioned because Contador’s tactics appeared as a crude faux pas violating the Tour’s cultural traditions honoring fair play.

For the past week, Luxembourgian cyclist, Andy Schleck has worn the race leader’s yellow jersey, and at the start of yesterday’s race Schleck led Contador by a respectable thirty one seconds. Over the past several days Contador has been unable to break away in the sort of uphill sprints that he successfully used against Schleck and others in the last few Tours, as Schleck has stayed with and even toyed with Contador in difficult mountain stages. Schleck’s talent and persistence have left concerned expressions on the once invincible Contador’s face. In yesterday’s stage fifteen race, moments after Andy Schleck had launched what appeared to be a successful uphill breakaway from Contador just three kilometers from the summit of the difficult climb at Port de Bales, with only a steep twenty kilometer descent to the finish, he experienced a mechanical failure as his chain jammed in his front chain ring, forcing him off his bike for about a minute as Contador and other riders in the chase group raced on. Once Schleck was back on his bike he raged up the hill past groups of riders, but with the time gap of his mechanical repair and forced to undertake a tricky descent without support, he finished the stage thirty nine seconds behind Contador, and lost the yellow jersey by eight second.

The jeers that greeted Contador as he was awarded the yellow jersey were unusual for this sport, but they were no more unusual than Contador’s decision to violate expectations that one does not take advantage of the race leader’s freak mechanical mishap.

It is difficult to explain to basketball, soccer, or football fans the code of etiquette governing Tour riders. Some of the practices seem quaint (i.e., the final stage riding into Paris should not threaten the standing of the yellow jersey), while others appear to be the practical outcome of a three-week endurance race where athletes can burn over 10,000 calories a day (e.g., it would be bad form for a group of riders to attack with a sprint pace when a race leader stopped by the side of the road for a requisite “nature break”).

Probably the most obvious rule is that riders are to “respect yellow,” that is, the culture of the Tour focuses respect on the race leader wearing the yellow jersey in large and small ways such as allowing yellow passage up through the peloton. Form and poise matter in the Tour; last week Tour organizers ejected sprinter Mark Renshaw from the race after he aggressively bumped heads (mislabeled “head-butting” by the press, but it was far to gentile to be a head-butt) with rider Julian Dean.

Andy Schleck is ridding a near flawless Tour this year. Last year, with the help of his brother Frank, the Schleck brothers terrorized Contador in the Pyrenees as the two wascally brothers played a game of uphill cat and mouse with Contador that sometimes successfully broke his concentration and strategically tapped-out his energy—though Contador emerged the victor by the end of the race. The loss of Frank Schleck to a crash two weeks ago had a clear impact to yesterday’s stage, as Andy Schleck’s mechanical mishap left him alone without a teammate anywhere near him who could have traded him bikes so that he wouldn’t have lost so much time fixing his chain.

Contador’s decision to exploit Schleck’s mechanical breakdown yesterday in Stage Fifteen creates real problems for him. Lots of fans, like myself, who see Contador as one of the best natural riders of the last several decades see his decision to attack the yellow jersey as an act of weakness and poor form—especially so given that the outcome of the Tour this year likely won’t be determined until a late time trial on the Tour’s penultimate day; a race design that certainly favors Contador, but now will have many fans pulling for Schleck to attack and try and mercilessly break Contador in the final Pyrenees stages.

The early stages of this year’s Tour had an unusual number of crashes, and some of the best riders suffered injuries or losses from wrecks in the first third of the Tour that left them either out of the race, or with insurmountable time deficits. Most notable, Frank Schleck was caught in an accident that left him with a collarbone broken in three places, and Lance Armstrong had a tire puncture at a crucial cobblestone stage, and was then caught in a series of crashes (one sent him down at speeds of 50 kilometers per hour) that left him with so far behind that his role in the Tour became to support his teammate Levi Leipheimer.

One never knows the particulars of doping during the races, but my hunch is that this must be what a (relatively) dope free Tour looks like: slower recoveries, haggard riders, more brutal crashes, more reliance on team dynamics; and the emergence of a strong, consistent dogged champion like the wiry, young, Andy Schleck. The mountain stages have missed the sort of brutal tactical attacks by race leaders that Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador or Floyd Landis launched in the last five tours—but this will likely change with stages sixteen and seventeen as Schleck will take a personal interest in breaking Contador. Last year’s amazing uphill performance by Contador in the Verbier stage in the Swiss Alps was so phenomenal that American former Tour champion Greg LaMond published an article in Le Monde citing the scientific calculations of French physiologist Antonie Vayer calculating that it was physically impossible for a human being to oxygenate blood while generating such levels of energy without resorting to doping.

This year claims of “bicycle doping” (secretly adding a motor capable of sustaining speeds of 50 kilometers per hour inside a bicycle’s toptube) were taken seriously enough after a video making the rounds on youtube claimed that Fabian Cancellara had used such a doctored bike last month in the Tour of Flanders that winners bikes are being X-Rayed at this year’s Tour de France. Such claims see unlikely outside of the fiction of James Bond’s Q’s laboratory, but race organizers want to assure the public of a fair race.

Cycling remains the cleanest sport in the world; unlike basketball, baseball, football and other professional sports, professional cycling undergoes intensive drug monitoring. It isn’t that there hasn’t been an increasing and widespread, regular, use of recovery agents (blood doping, steroids, etc.) by a broad range of riders—likely broad enough that the playing field has been more level than not—it is that other professional sports have never tested athletes at the levels these faced by professional bicycle riders.

So far, Andy Schleck’s comments to the press have been measured, and I expect him to unleash a brutal and personal attack in the mountain climbs of stages sixteen and seventeen; but the composure and level-mouthed smile he maintained as he was awarded the white jersey (for best young rider) at the end of yesterday’s stage showed a calm and calculating rider with real class.

DAVID PRICE is an avid bicycle commuter who rides a mighty Batavus Socorro and only races cyclists who don’t know they’re racing him. He is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologist.  He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, published by Duke University Press. He can be reached at dprice@stmartin.edu





David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.