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In Cycling, Winning With Honor Means Everything

July 23, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PAU, France — When Lance Armstrong was dropped to the pavement by the wayward handle of a fan's yellow bag, his closest pursuers, even Germany's Jan Ullrich, who had trailed Armstrong by only 15 seconds at the day's start, slowed to wait for Armstrong to pick himself up, dust himself off and get back in the race.

To many U.S. sports fans, casual watchers of this extraordinary bike race, what happened in Monday's Stage 15 of the Tour de France caused a collective "huh?"

But to Ullrich, who is now 1 minute 7 seconds behind Armstrong as the three-week race heads into its final five days, speeding off while Armstrong was on the ground would have been wrong.

"Of course, I would wait," Ullrich said Tuesday morning at his hotel here, where Stage 16 begins today. "If I would have won this race by taking advantage of someone's bad luck, then the race was not worth winning."

Despite some past problems with drug scandals, professional cycling is almost quaint in its code of chivalry.

If the leader needs a bathroom break, the cyclists slow down, make room and quit racing until the leader is back.

No one takes advantage of feeding time. If the Tour de France should pass a rider's hometown, it is OK for the rider to go ahead, take a detour, then come back to the race. No one will complain.

That happened in 1998, said Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong's in the U.S. Postal Service group and now a television commentator.

Andreu recalled that Sean Yates, a talented Irish rider, was allowed to ride ahead to his hometown when the Tour began in Ireland. "Sean saw his parents, was cheered by his friends, had a glass of Champagne and then rejoined the peloton [the lead pack] when it got to his town," Andreu said.

"It was just understood. That was something nice to do. Of course, it's also understood that the rider will wait for the peloton to arrive. He won't take off ahead of time."

This Tour has been filled with examples of these unwritten rules of the road, of the small demonstrations of courtesy and honest friendship among the men who ride together for more than 2,100 miles, up lung-sapping mountain climbs, in heat so severe that Armstrong dropped 13 pounds in one stage, and who must respect one another at the end if there is to be order.

In the stage in which Spaniard Joseba Beloki was tossed from his bike and broke a leg, an arm and a wrist, Armstrong barely avoided the same outcome by swerving into a field, riding across it, hopping off his bike, jumping a ditch and rejoining the peloton.

When Armstrong got back to his compatriots, Tyler Hamilton, once an Armstrong teammate and now a lead rider for his own group, patted Armstrong on the back, a gesture of consolation and understanding and a welcome back to the race.

During the 10th stage, a race downhill from the Alps to Marseille, two riders -- Jakob Piil of Denmark and Fabio Sacchi of Italy -- left the pack well behind. With two kilometers left, Piil and Sacchi shook hands, then took off in a sprint. Piil won the stage by the length of a finger. The handshake had been a gesture of appreciation between the two men. They had bested everyone else on this day; now they needed to compete for themselves.

On Monday, after Armstrong had restarted the attack after his fall, he caught the Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel. Chavanel had led the stage through most of the first five, hard climbs. On his way past Chavanel, Armstrong reached out and patted Chavanel on the back.

It was a gesture of congratulations and apology by Armstrong.

"If Lance hadn't needed the 20-seconds bonus for winning the stage," Andreu said, "absolutely Lance would have let Chavanel win the stage. That's what you do. You help people. Because someday you'll want someone to help you."

The Tour wasn't always full of good sportsmanship.

In Graeme Fife's book "Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders," tales are told of all sorts of mean-spirited behavior, of fans throwing nails onto the road, of leaders sprinkling the road with shards of glass, of riders being given drinks laced with foreign substances, even of itching powder being put in the shorts. For a while, the Tour was one part "Animal House," one part jail break.

"I don't know when it evolved," said Phil Liggett, a former amateur rider and for 31 years a journalist who has covered the Tour. "It's been a gradual thing, this so-called unwritten code.

"But now it is understood. You don't attack a fallen man. I can't think of a time, in my 31 years, when a rider attacked someone who had crashed. I know that today, in the German press, it's been written that Ullrich pulled a stupid maneuver by not attacking Lance when he went down. But the attitude in cycling is: You want to win a race? You want to beat someone, not take advantage."

Or, as Ullrich said, "I have never in my life attacked someone who has crashed. That's not the way I race."

Two years ago, Armstrong waited for Ullrich when the German crashed on a mountain descent.

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