On This Day in the Tour…21st July 2011

July 21st 2011

 

To understand the mindset of Andy Schleck as he hauled himself up the Galibier on 21st July 2011, it is necessary to cast your memory back to the previous year’s race, to Stage 15 of the 2010 Tour de France, to the last climb of the day on 19th July 2010, to Port de Balès, and to an event known as ‘Chaingate’.

Chaingate Revisited

Schleck was wearing the yellow jersey for Stage 15 of the 2010 edition of the race, 31 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Alberto Contador. Further up the road, Frenchman Thomas Voeckler was no threat to the GC contenders, shielded from the drama about to unfold 2km from the summit of the day’s final climb. Hoping for more time to protect his lead in the General Classification – particularly in view of the upcoming Time Trial – Schleck chose to attack on the Port de Balès.

Schleck’s attack looked strong for a fleeting moment, before the rider ground to a standstill in front of confused fans at the roadside and TV cameras expecting to provide cover of every movement made by the yellow jersey. He’d dropped his chain, possibly as a result of changing gear on a steep incline in an aggressive attack. Contador, who was behind the maillot jaune when his chain dropped, rode past Schleck together with Denis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez, a strong group of three riders with serious podium ambitions. Meanwhile, the younger Schleck brother was watching Contador wrest the yellow jersey from his torso with every pedal stroke the three riders took towards the summit of the climb.

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Andy Schleck wrestles with a dropped chain, the infamous ‘Chaingate’ affair as captured by G. Watson

Panic set in as the Luxembourger was unable to put his chain back on, gesturing behind him, hands shaking, no team mates in sight. After a few seconds which seemed to last years, Schleck managed – albeit briefly – to resolve the chain issue. A spectator helped him to get back on the bike but he was unable to turn the pedals, and once again was playing the part of a very poor mechanic. After yet another interminable passage of seconds, Schleck appeared to have fixed the problem with his chain. Two gentleman pushed him uphill, allowing the yellow jersey to regain the momentum required to propel himself towards Port de Balès and the finish line at Bagneres-de-Luchon beyond.

“My Stomach is Full of Anger”

Spurred on by adrenaline and anger, the Luxembourger surged upwards towards the summit, cresting the top of the climb only 13 seconds behind Contador, Menchov and Sanchez, which was an astonishing achievement given the amount of time he could have lost. Schleck was now riding on his own in a desperate attempt to catch the Contador group. The stage was eventually won by Voeckler, who had managed to stay away all day. Schleck’s ride into Bageres-de-Luchon had done nothing to quell his emotions. “My stomach is full of anger” he seethed to the press, “I’m going to take my revenge on the Tourmalet”.

Unfortunately for the former yellow jersey, the much hyped Tourmalet stage, which took place two days after the Chaingate incident, failed to produce the time gaps which would have put the Luxembourger back in yellow, although Schleck did win the stage, the drama and tension heightened by the heavy veil of cloud which had settled at the summit. Schleck – by now wearing the white jersey of the race’s best young rider – was only visible as he crossed the finish line, bearing not an expression of happiness but of grim determination, the white jersey indistinguishable from the cloud from which he emerged. Schleck realised his yellow dreams were over – Contador remained, limpet like, stuck to his back wheel, seeming to already radiate the golden glow of a winner, as what little light available picked out the colour of the maillot jaune, smudged and blurred into the clouds that clung heavily to the Spaniard.

It was this realisation – that the jersey had escaped him – that drove Andy Schleck throughout the following years’ Tour de France. Unsurprisingly, Chaingate became the defining moment of the 2010 pro cycling season. Debate still swirled as to whether Contador was wrong to attack when he did. Some camera angles seemed to suggest that the Spaniard had launched an attack of his own before Schleck had dropped his chain, and that the momentum of this forward movement on such a steep climb would not have allowed for him to sit up. The fact that the time lost by the Luxembourger on that stage – 39 seconds – was the exact time by which Contador won the Tour only perpetuated the sometimes hostile debate.

Bubbling Beneath

Despite remaining friends with Contador and setting aside their different points of view on the drama of 2010, Chaingate bubbled beneath the usually calm exterior of Andy Schleck. The younger Schleck brother was desperately seeking a mountain to duel with – this time Schleck intended to be fighting himself and the cruelty of nature, as opposed to carbon fibre and Spanish steel.

In the back of his mind, Schleck could not be confident that Chaingate was the cause of his drop down to the 2nd step of the Paris podium, and this was like taking sandpaper to his hard fought confidence. Both Schleck brothers, and Andy in particular, were prone to losing time on the descents. They could climb, but had trouble getting back down again. Adrenaline had almost allowed Schleck to catch up to the group of three riders who had attacked his mechanical incident in 2010. Nerves and fear saw him haemorrhaging time all over the road to Bagneres-de-Luchon. Questions haunted Andy as to whether his 39s deficit was actually lost through his comparatively poor descending skills as opposed to the breaking of the unwritten rule on protecting the race leader and not attacking mechanical problems.

Galibier Anoints

Schleck came to the 2011 Tour de France to settle old scores with himself. He’d targetted one stage for his personal redemption – the epic Stage 18, which was designed to honour the 100th anniversary of the Tour’s first visit to Galibier. The stage was set – a high mountain amphitheatre, 200km starting from Pinerolo over the Italian border, taking in iconic climbs of the Col d’Izoard and Col du Galibier, ending at the ski resort of Serre Chevalier. Even many of the principal characters were the same. Thomas Voeckler was again cast in a non-speaking role, as the race leader in yellow.

Schleck planned to attack on the Col d’Izoard, dreaming of riding away from the rest of the race, into the clouds and into the yellowing pages of the Tour’s history books. The attack worked, Schleck was soon sweeping up a large breakaway, riding alone at the head of the race . The first half of Andy’s Tour had looked disappointing and lacked sparkle. He was prepared to try the Izoard plan knowing that at the end of the day he’d either be bathed in glory or collecting the debris from a shattered campaign. As the younger Schleck forged ahead, his attack took on the hue of one of the fantastic unexpected Tour endurance feats – the great race encourages great bravery and defiance in the company of adversity.

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Riding towards a famous win on Galibier, 2011. Photo courtesy of Bettini.

Andy Schleck was steadily securing his 2nd place in the race with every pedal stoke. Team BMC’s podium hope (and eventual Tour winner) Cadel Evans saw his dream of Parisien victory laps evaporating, and was forced to give chase. Although he clawed back precious seconds, Evans could only look up the road towards the finish line as his rival forged on alone. Schleck and Evans were igniting the race like the legendary riders of the interwar era. 

Schleck won a famous victory on Galibier, wresting his demons as well as the road and his carbon fibre machine.  The time he took from Thomas Voeckler saw him winning the yellow jersey with only two days to go before the race heaved itself wearily onto the road to Paris. Unfortunately for the younger Scheck brother, one of these days was an individual time trial, which he would start as race leader, but finish with a Poulidorean air in second place – once again the race’s Nearly Man.  

Whilst the 2010 edition of the race is remembered for Chaingate, the 2011 edition could easily have been looked upon as the race that Schleck lost, rather than the race Cadel Evans won. Instead, the 2011 Tour de France is remembered for an epic battle – an audacious and almost foolhardy dash from the slopes of the Izoard towards the myth of Galibier.  As in fairy tales and legends, a small man with unequalled courage picked a fight with a giant; with uncertain chance of victory.  The intricate tapestry that is the history of the Tour is sewn together with tales like the one Schleck enacted on the Col du Galibier, it is what the race was made for, its purpose to create and narrate stories.  Schleck, in the end, wrote his own final chapter to this three act play. 

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Crossing the finish line of an emphatic victory. Photo courtesy of Bettini.

 

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