Jacques Anquetil was the first cyclist to win five Tours de France; in 1961, he held the yellow jersey from first stage to last. Anquetil was the first to win all three grand tours. He held the hour record. In 1965 he won the gruelling 557km Bordeaux-Paris, the day after taking victory in the week-long Dauphine Libere, an amazing achievement. His generally defensive racing style meant he was less successful in one day races, but even so he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, considered by many to be the toughest of the Classics. Anquetil was imperious, undoubtedly the strongest rider of his era. Yet he was never world champion, despite finishing in the top ten on six occasions. Why?
In Master Jacques, Richard Yates argues that it was spite that ensured Anquetil would never win the world title. His rivalry with Raymond Poulidor was so intense that he spent more time preventing Poulidor from winning the world title than trying to win it himself. In other words, it was more important to Anquetil to stop his rival from being world champion than to be world champion himself.
It’s incredible that a great athlete would pass up the opportunity of winning one of the most prestigious titles the sport has to offer for the sake of personal animosity. Yet there it is. Anquetil hated Poulidor; he couldn’t bear it that the French public loved Poulidor, the loser, more than he, the imperious winner. It was jealous, small-minded and magnificently petty. One of the great cycling images is of the two men riding elbow to elbow up the Puy de Dome in the 1964 Tour, neither giving an inch, neither allowing the other to have even half a wheel. Riding like that was to neither man’s advantage. Yet it’s as compelling a moment as the sport has to offer; it is the essence of sport.
Schleck and Contador climbing for almost certain victory on the Tourmalet in this year’s Tour could – and should – have been as compelling. But there was – there is – something missing from this rivalry: spite. We came close, in stage 15 when Contador powered on as Schleck dropped his chain and seized the yellow jersey. Many argued that this critical counter breached a basic convention of the sport – you don’t attack the yellow jersey when he suffers an accident or a mechanical. Schleck was furious, Contador at first indifferent as he celebrated taking the race lead at the end of the stage. For a few gossip-filled hours, the rivalry seemd to light up. Then Contador apologised, Schleck accepted and we were back to the fine bromance that reached its pinnacle with the stomach-turning spectacle of Contador patting Schleck’s face for just a little too long after gifting him the Tourmalet stage.
Apparently, they’re off on holiday together now. Great chums, terrible rivals. Schleck should have ripped his head off. Many great sporting achievements are built on intense rivalries: they take much of their fuel from the destructive personal animus that exists between evenly-matched competitors vying to occupy the same glorious space. At times they give us astonishing passages of sporting excellence – think Coe and Ovett swapping the mile world record three times in nine days in August 1981. The two men never actually raced against each other during this period because they refused to appear in the same races. Petty. But compelling.
Think Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn – Britain’s two finest middleweight boxers of the 80s and 90s – refusing to speak or even look at each other during a deliciously uncomfortable TV chat show interview just a week or so before a vicious fight between the two. Think Ben Johnson’s remarkable allegations that Carl Lewis’ handlers spiked his soft drink with the banned steroid stanozolol after the Olympic 100m final in 1988 (giving rise to the hilarious ‘Johnson defence’, since employed by Floyd Landis – “Yeah, I was pumped full of drugs. But I didn’t take that.”).
Think Gino Bartali compulsively searching Fausto Coppi’s hotel rooms for evidence of performance-enhancing drugs because he couldn’t bear the thought that he had met his nemesis. Then think Coppi returning the favour by paying teammates to take Bartali for a boozy night out before an important race – a plan that backfired because Bartali had the constitution of several oxen and was fine the next day. Coppi’s teammates, on the other hand, were too shattered to ride well and were of little use to him in the race.
Then think Schleck and Contador. Going on holiday together. For crying out loud.
There is only one winner here – Contador. Contador gets to win serenely, practically with the approval of his greatest rival. He gets to maintain the facade of the nice smalltown boy from the outskirts of Madrid – polite, courteous, the kind of nice young man a pretty girl could introduce to her mum. The truth, in my opinion, is that Contador is a killer, a savage competitor who attacks instinctively when he detects a weakness in his opponent. He showed it on the Port de Bales as he surged ruthlessly past the stricken Schleck. It was only really when he was booed while receiving the yellow jersey on the podium that he began to falter. He’d lost approval and that was unbearable. Perhaps this was how he learned as a child to get what he wanted – always make sure you win people’s approval and they give you the latitude to take what you want without your having to openly reveal your selfishness, your competitiveness, your desire. Disapproval shakes Contador. He doesn’t like to be unmasked. But he’s a killer.
There’s another thing, too. Contador knows that being nice to Schleck effectively neuters him as a rival. The apology brought Shleck back into a safe orbit. Schleck, for his part, has slipped too easily into the role of the obliging younger brother. He’ll compete hard, he’ll make it tough for you, but he knows his place. He is not a killer; he’s a nice guy with a great deal of talent who seems uncomfortable with the more savage emotions required to win an event like the Tour. Personally, I think he was probably relieved when the obligation to be angry was removed by Contador’s apology. He talks a good game, but you don’t feel that he really believes it. Contador has more or less emasculated him.
It’s a situation that makes them both feel comfortable. But there is only one winner here. Not Schleck, and certainly not us, the watching public. Schleck needs to get angry and stay angry. He should have spat in Contador’s eye at the top of the Tourmalet. He should have cancelled the holiday immediately. More than that, he should have phoned the tour company and told them Contador was travelling on a false passport or was a wanted sex pest, or something. Something. He needs to shake Contador up, to peel away his facade, to bring the beast into the open. If Schleck wants to beat Contador, he needs to unsettle him. But instead he’s going to be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean or somewhere, sipping margaritas and eyeing up the ladies with the man who is supposed to be his great rival.
Bollocks to that. Schleck should be in a massive sulk right now. He should be having childish fits at the mention of Contador’s name. But he doesn’t get it – you can’t win the Tour without animosity. You just can’t. There’s plenty of time to patch things up once your career is over. But, right now, Andy, we need you to be petty, small-minded and ridiculously, childishly competitive. Learn from the greats. Think Anquetil on the Puy de Dome. There’s a man you could never accuse of generosity of spirit. And just look at his record.