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Great chain debate: Contador inherits yellow jersey

To wait or not to wait — that was never the question when race leader Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) dropped his chain on the Port de Balès in Monday’s wild ride over the Pyrénées.

Chivalry was not an option when the brutal attacks came 3km from the Balès summit in the heat of the battle in the final week of the Tour de France. Schleck dropped his chain and no one waited for him. There was no wave of the hands to slow the pace, no discussion among the attackers to wait for the yellow jersey.

Alberto Contador (Astana) inherited a yellow jersey that will be marked with controversy. The two-time Tour champ bristled at the boos when he slipped on the maillot jaune, but by the time the dust settled in Bagneres-de-Luchon, he traded a 31-second deficit to Schleck to an 8-second advantage.

“There are people who understand and there are those who do not. Today was circumstances of the race. I had already opened up my attack. The stage was already launched,” Contador said. “The peloton waited in Spa, but today the circumstances were different. I can understand why there’s polemic.”

Schleck was certainly disappointed to lose the jersey in this manner. Instead of tightening his grip on the yellow jersey, Schleck saw it ride away when he was desperately trying to remount his chain.

“My stomach is full of anger. The race I not finished and I want to take revenge,” said Schleck. “I would not have raced like that and taken advantage of the situation. For sure, those guys don’t get the fair play prize today.”

The Saxo Bank captain had just opened up a vicious acceleration. Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov marked the attack and Contador, who says he was trapped on the right side of the road, swung left to counter.

As Contador explains it, he was already punching the accelerator and didn’t realize Schleck was having mechanical problems. Contador surged to the left of Schleck, who was just about to step out of his pedals. Quick to mark Contador’s wheel were podium challengers Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

Contador glanced back a few times as Schleck struggled to remount his chain and lost positioning as more than a dozen riders swept past him. Schleck tried in vain to recover lost ground, but Contador, Menchov and Sánchez were roaring up the final kilometers of the Balès climb.

The race was on and no one was going to slow down.

“I can understand why Andy is disappointed. He had to attack today, just like I had planned to attack. It was a day when he wanted to take time and, in the end, it was me who took time,” Contador said. “I’d like to take the maillot jaune in different circumstances, but what’s more important is that I took time. The race was on — you cannot stop the race at a moment like that. Nothing changes for me. I am still concentrated on the race, on my rivals who are close to me.”

Whether or not Contador should have slowed the race for Schleck will fuel debate for the remainder of this Tour. Crashes, mechanical problems and punctures are part of any race, and there are no carved-in-stone rules on when riders should wait or simply let the race unfold.

The peloton waited in Spa in stage 2 when nearly half the pack crashed, but that decision enraged Thor Hushovd (Cervélo), who says he might have lost the green jersey that day because he was poised to win the stage and take points when his rivals were out of the picture.

“In the heat of the race and the finale, you cannot say to Contador, ‘wait for Andy.’ Andy didn’t wait for Contador on the cobblestones, either,” said RadioShack’s Johan Bruyneel. “You can’t say to Sammy Sánchez, I’ll let you go because I’ll wait for the yellow jersey. No, there are no gifts in this race.”

Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis was trying to remain upbeat about Schleck’s overall chances despite the bitter twist of fate. The squad huddled inside the team bus immediately after the stage to discuss their feelings and plot a game plan to try to bounce back.

“Sánchez and Menchov were going full gas. It won’t help to criticize. For us, it would have been better if they had waited, but we cannot expect any help in these circumstances,” Riis said. “I think Contador waited at the beginning, but it took awhile before Andy was on his bike again. How long can Contador wait? I don’t know. Of course we’d have hoped he waited more. I don’t want to create a polemic, but how many guys crashed today? Nobody helps them, nobody waited. That’s how it is.”

The great chain debate will rage on, but the Tour continues Tuesday with another harrowing stage across the Pyrénées. Schleck vows to attack, but his anger might have to wait until Thursday’s summit finish up the Tourmalet. Tuesday’s four-climb stage, which also tackles the Tourmalet, sees the final climb more than 60km from the finish line, hardly ideal terrain for the GC favorites to move.

This Tour looks to be one of the most hard-fought in decades and Riis reminded everyone the maillot jaune can be decided by seconds.

“I was in a team with one guy (Laurent Fignon) with long hair who actually lost the Tour by eight seconds, so it means a lot to me,” Riis said. “It’s sad for Andy, he doesn’t deserve that. It’s not just those eight seconds, it’s the 39 seconds he lost. To be honest, I don’t see one of them being stronger than the other in the climbs.”

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