As I recounted in my Biased Blow-By-Blow report of Tour de France Stage 19, there was some post-race mudslinging. Vincenzo Nibali had attacked right when Chris Froome was stymied by a bike problem. Nibali went on to win the stage, and then Froome complained about it—first to Nibali after accosting him near the podium, and then to the press. In an epilogue to my report, I bashed Froome for this, concluding, “Froome, man, get some class!”
Well, a reader of this blog—perhaps the reader, who in this particular case is not my mom—wrote me to say, “I kinda disagree with you about Froome’s comments after the race. It didn’t seem like whining to me. While Nibali didn’t really threaten him at any point whatsoever, it did look like a dick move at the time when he attacked. Nibble looked over his shoulder, saw that Froomey was stopping for some reason, and then he attacked. I thought that was generally frowned upon?”
In a perfect world, I’d always get comments on my blog posts, and could fill up these pages responding. I’d never have to think up a topic again. So, even though the whole matter reeks of soap opera, I’m going to respond.
As reported in cyclingnews, “Nibali revealed Froome verbally attacked him after the stage in the podium area. ‘I won’t say the words he used because they’ve too harsh and it’s not nice to say them. He was very angry but I don’t know what his problem was. Lots of things happen in a race....’” Froome acknowledged the post-race altercation, telling the press Nibali’s attack was “very unsportsmanlike and not what the Tour de France is all about” and adding, “I told him just what I thought of him.”
Reactions to Nibali’s attack
While watching the attack unfold, I predicted there would be post-race blather about Nibali’s move. As I wrote in my blow-by-blow, “Wow, Froome has something wrong with his bike! He’s looking down at his drivetrain, clearly puzzled at all the whizzing gears and such. He’s getting dropped! Nibali, meanwhile, is attacking! If anything comes of this attack, he’ll be compared to Contador and ‘chain-gate....’”
(In case you’re a cycling fan who spent some time under a rock, or a normal person who doesn’t waste his or her time with cycling gossip, “chain-gate” refers to an episode in the 2010 Tour de France when Alberto Contador clearly took advantage of Andy Schleck’s dropped chain to launch what proved to be the race-winning attack: in Paris Contador ended up first place in the GC by 39 seconds—exactly the time he took out of Schleck in that stage. The blow was perhaps lessened 19 months later when Contador had the title stripped, due to a doping offense. The whole matter became even more irrelevant, at least to me, when Schleck’s brother Fränk tested positive, was suspended, and neither brother ever achieved anything remarkable again, which tells me Fränk’s positive test scared Andy straight, meaning he’d been a doper all along anyway.)
I watched this race via a live Eurosport feed, and neither commentator—Carlton Kirby nor the former Irish champ Sean Kelly—made any mention of the attack being unfair. At least, nothing I remember. Those two had chatted before about racers not behaving perfectly—like Rafal Majka pretending his radio wasn’t working earlier in the Tour when he failed to support his leader—but they didn’t get up in arms about it. Kelly chuckled at remembering how a PDM teammate of his was similarly insubordinate during a grand tour. “He couldn’t have blamed a radio, though,” Carlton pointed out, to which Kelly laughed, “No, he tore the instructions to pieces in front of our director!” I’ve seen this laissez-faire attitude before on Eurosport, like when Mark Renshaw head-butted another rider during a final sprint and commentator David Harmon cried, “Renshaw gives him a good battering!” (To which Kelly replied, “That’s your job in that situation, making sure your man doesn’t get crowded out.”)
On the other hand, when I watched a replay of the NBC coverage, I was surprised at how indignant Phil Liggett got. He missed the attack initially, because they were on a commercial break, but when they returned to the action Phil reported, “This happened literally seconds ago, Chris Froome seemed to have a problem, I didn’t see actually see it, we’re gonna have a look in a moment, and this will be taken [as] a very dim view of this, because Nibali saw the stopping of Chris Froome and launched an attack at the front. Well, whatever happened to Chris Froome, it’s a dim view, and a black mark for Vincenzo Nibali. You don’t attack a rider, that’s a gentlemen’s agreement when the rider is down from no fault of his own.” When they showed the replay, Phil’s voice rose a few octaves: “Let’s show you now what happened here. The yellow jersey had something wrong with his gears I think ... Nibali looks right at him, saw it, and accelerated! That’s not very sportsmanlike and I think the press will tell you that!” (This is about 2 hours 2 minutes into the footage if you want to have a look.)
Actually, other than the press reporting both sides, I didn’t see much else in the way of criticism. The official ASO stage highlights commented, but without much bile: “The champion of Italy benefited from Froome’s mechanical problem on the Col de la Croix de Fer to escape from the yellow jersey group. Then he caught and passed Pierre Roland on the final descent.”
Was it a dick move?
Okay, forget what everybody else said about it. Let’s get down to brass tacks: was Nibali’s well-timed attack a dick move, or not? I suppose that first we should look into the matter of whether Nibali actually saw that Froome had a problem. As reported in cyclingnews, Nibali claims he didn’t: “When I looked back, it was to look at [teammate Tanel] Kangert. We did the race on the Col de la Croix de Fer and were planning to make a big attack.” So: was this true? Let’s look at a couple snapshots from the replay that Phil got so heated about:
Well, Nibali is clearly looking back. But he really does appear to be looking at Kangert. In the first photo, Kangert is pretty well eclipsing Froome, which isn’t hard to do because Froome is so damn thin, he’s practically 2-dimensional. If we look at the next shot, a second later, it’s even more apparent that Nibali is looking at Kangert, but we can also see that Froome is really slowing down—look at how Quintana (in white) has passed him. Could it be that Nibali has noticed this, and senses that there’s a bike problem? Possibly. And he could have heard something over his radio. But all this is far from obvious.
What really is obvious is that Nibali had to know sooner or later, as he continued his attack, that Froome had had a mechanical. Here’s a photo a bit later of Nibali clearly looking back at the struggling racer leader:
Actually, there are three guys looking back at Froomie in that photo, and I don’t see any of them waiting up! And think about it. You’re Nibali, you’re the defending Tour champ, and you’re having a crappy Tour. You’re in 7th overall, 8 minutes behind Froome, but only 25 seconds behind 6th (Robert Gesink) and 1:24 behind 5th (Contador). The podium is almost 4 minutes away, but the rider currently in 3rd on GC is Alejandro Valverde, who (possibly due to an impossibly complicated doping program) has a history of really bad days in grand tours. So Nibali wasn’t attacking Froome to begin with. He was attacking everybody else. Of course he won’t pause his attack to let Froome join the party. And let’s not pretend there was anything definitive about his initial gap on Froome. They’re climbing, after all.
But you know what? This analysis is beginning to drag, so let’s assume that Phil Liggett was right and this was totally a dick move by Nibali. Now we can ask some other questions.
Could Froome have known it was a dick move?
If you watch that footage (or at least refer to the snapshots above) you’ll see that wherever Nibali was looking, Froome was looking down. Hell, Froome always looks down. I’m surprised he hasn’t run into a fricking post by now. He’s the downest-looking, and looking-downest, racer I’ve ever seen. Here are a couple of snapshots I took more or less at random when I was watching the race. Looking down, and looking down.
And at the crucial moment of Nibali’s attack, Froome was certainly looking down, as I reported live during my blow-by-blow commentary: “Wow, Froome has something wrong with his bike! He’s looking down at his drivetrain, clearly puzzled at all the whizzing gears and such.” At this moment, Froome was rightly more concerned about what was wrong with his bike than what was happening ahead, so he wouldn’t have seen Nibali turning his head, even if Nibali wasn’t eclipsed by Kangert. So I doubt he saw the (putative) dick move. He just guessed about it.
Speaking of guesswork, let’s remember that Phil Liggett was also guessing about the dick move. His accusation of unsportsmanlike conduct began, “Chris Froome seemed to have a problem, I didn’t actually see it, we’re gonna have a look in a moment....” He claims that “Nibali saw the stopping of Chris Froome and launched an attack at the front,” but he hadn’t actually seen this yet.
Similarly, Nibali—when caught up in a Stage 6 crash caused by Tony Martin—initially guessed (incorrectly) that it was Froome’s fault. Probably because he hates him. That brought about the pair’s first post-race altercation.
Should Froome have cared about the dick move?
Whether or not Nibali knowingly capitalized on Froome’s mechanical, and whether or not Froome saw this, he obviously learned soon enough that Nibali was benefiting from the situation. On a gut level, this would obviously have pissed him off, because he hates Nibali to begin with, and was surely nervous about anything fouling up the status quo of his eerily, suspiciously powerful Sky team controlling the pace. But once things settled down and Nibali was away solo (with Valverde safely back in the GC group), Froome—being a professional—should have seen this move for what it was: a blessing.
A blessing? Yes. Nibali was no threat to Froome’s GC ambitions. But, being a serious GC threat to Robert Gesink, Alejandro Valverde, and Alberto Contador—all present in this group—Nibali had now created a situation where all three riders, and their three teammates in the group, had to chase, giving Sky carte blanche to just sit on. And if Nibali stayed away, he’d snap up the time bonus at the end, so Quintana couldn’t get it. Meanwhile, a solo victory by Nibali would remove that extra motivation for Quintana at the end; how much faster might Quintana have gone if he could have nabbed a stage win?
But okay, racing isn’t a mellow affair, Froome was chock-full of testosterone (not all of it synthetic), and perhaps it’s inevitable that his blood (thick like jam) would boil when his enemy took advantage of him. I can’t expect Froome to have appreciated, at the time, how good Nibali’s move was for him, since he’s not exactly a tactician. But after the race, when the results were posted, should he still have been angry? Granted, Quintana had taken 30 seconds out of him, but that had nothing whatsoever to do with Nibali, and Froome still had a nice cushion. Meanwhile, Froome had taken over a minute more out of his other rivals. And he wouldn’t have won the stage anyway, since Quintana was obviously stronger at the end. For my money, Froome should have shrugged, reflected that all’s well that ends well, and moved on.
Should Froome have said anything?
All right, I’ll go one step further and excuse Froome for being angry even after the fact. Maybe he’s a hothead, he doesn’t like to share the limelight, and he’s bitter at having urine thrown at him and people spitting at him. Maybe it takes a long time to come down off all that adrenaline and reflect on how good things actually are. But should he have whined to the press about Nibali’s tactics?
This is where I refuse to cut Froomie any slack. By complaining, he just came off looking petty and small. After all, he was still on top! He was on the cusp of winning his second Tour de France, over a route that (due to its lack of time trials) so little favored him, he had considered (or pretended to consider) not racing it at all. He was still the alpha dog, and in no position to complain about anything! Poor Nibali, criticized all year for not winning anything, got this stage win but was still almost 7 minutes down and, as a defending champ with only an outside shot at even making the podium, was still the cyclist equivalent of a dog huddling under the couch, tail between its legs, sobbing in that lugubrious doggie way.
Moreover, Froome should have recognized that some journalist was bound to bring up Nibali’s tactics, so the question still would have been raised, and the notion of Nibali’s treachery would have seemed more legit coming from the press instead of a sulking, petulant adversary. And fielding this question would have given Froome a great chance to boost his (clearly sagging) image by playing it cool. “No, there was nothing amiss about the atttack,” he could say. “Nibali is a true champion and that was a brilliant stage victory.” In the context of his ongoing feud with Nibali, Froome’s comment would have been widely reported, and he would have looked gracious, classy, and magnanimous. Meanwhile, he’d be extending an olive branch to Nibali, which would be a wise move professionally—after all, it’s never good to have enemies in the peloton.
My final comment, this being (after all) a biased analysis, is that Froome looks like a pretty big hypocrite when he gets on his high horse about Nibali’s attack being “unsportsmanlike and not what the Tour de France is all about.” What is the Tour de France all about, Mr. Froome? Doping? Riding for a team that’s so obviously lubed we all can’t help but think of US Postal? A team that, instead of engaging in intelligent tactics like Movistar showed in Stage 20, merely bludgeons the entire peloton to death, stage after stage, by going to the front on climbing stages and having teammates (some who aren’t even climbers, like the track racer Geraint Thomas) set so high a pace, true tactics become unnecessary and the race becomes boring? Is the Tour de France all about being so abnormally strong you can afford to neutralize everybody, even the sad sack who, having totally given up on winning the Tour de France, is just trying to save a little face with a stage win? And then complaining later because you didn’t get your way on absolutely everything?
Based on this close analysis, I’m sticking with my original conclusion: Froome, man, get some class!