Contador-Schleck rivalry heats up

BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, France -- We were all wondering what might separate Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck in the mountain stages of the 2010 Tour de France. Monday's chain of events revealed that it wasn't competitive drive but a disagreement about competitive decorum.

The friendly rivalry between the two-time Tour winner from Spain and his younger challenger from Luxembourg veered into nasty territory when Schleck accused Contador of ignoring cycling convention by counterattacking him just as his chain slipped near the top of the day's toughest climb, forcing Schleck to come to a dead stop and make an impromptu repair.

Contador took over the Tour lead by a scant eight seconds. The defending champion was as unrepentant as Schleck was irritated immediately after the stage, and the mixed boos and cheers Contador received when he slipped on the iconic yellow jersey represented the division of opinion on what he should or shouldn't have done.

"I understand that he's disappointed about today," Contador said through a translator. "I had planned to attack. When I learned he had this incident, I was already on the attack.

"I know this is a delicate situation and there will be a polemic," adding that he doesn't think the slim gap he opened Monday will ultimately affect the final result.

The leader-as-sovereign, entitled to deference when his luck falters, may be a foreign concept to American sports fans. But it's an entrenched taboo in European cycling to go after the man in yellow under certain circumstances, including crashes and bathroom breaks.

Reconstructing developments when mind prevails over manners can be near-futile. People will never stop debating whether Jan Ullrich actually slowed down after Lance Armstrong famously caught his handlebar on a fan's souvenir feed bag on a climb in the Pyrenees during the 2003 Tour or if the German simply had to break his steady big-gear cadence and took credit for chivalry anyway.

Schleck's anger was unequivocal and apparently filled his stomach, according to his postrace remarks. His affect is generally more Clark Kent than Superman, so it was odd to hear him threatening revenge. Schleck seemed to have cooled off by the time he tweeted "S*** happens" and vowed he'd be back.

Contador said he didn't know what had happened to Schleck, which seemed disingenuous after replays showed he was behind the Saxo Bank team leader when Schleck's pedaling motion abruptly stopped. Schleck had been the initial aggressor, launching himself ahead of a group of overall contenders.

When podium threats Samuel Sanchez of Spain and Denis Menchov of Russia, in third and fourth place, respectively, also blew by the stalled Schleck, Contador said the race was on and he wasn't in a position to stop or slow it. Contador proceeded to benefit from Sanchez's precise, breathtaking descent skills, following his line all the way down from the top of the Port de Bales.

RadioShack team manager Johan Bruyneel, who directed Contador in all four of his Grand Tour wins, supported that thesis, saying that etiquette had to go out the window.

"[Contador] can't say, 'I'll let [Sanchez] go because I'll wait for the yellow jersey, who just had a mechanical,'" he said. "No. There are no gifts in this race."

Replays showed that Schleck initially sprinted ahead with just less than two miles to the top of the climb. Contador's Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov countered and passed him easily. Just as Schleck glanced down at his suddenly powerless legs, Contador swung around Schleck's left side and rocketed off in Vinokourov's wake. Schleck frantically fumbled with the chain and finally re-seated it himself as team cars were barred from following too closely on the climb.

Contador's margin could be a mixed blessing, as Tuesday's stage shapes up to be one of the most difficult -- physically and tactically -- of the race. His team will have to try to shelter him and control the action over four categorized climbs, the last two of which are particularly punishing. The legendary Tourmalet rises gradually at first, then steepens sharply at its midsection and doesn't let up. After that 10.5-mile joy ride, the peloton will take on the 18-mile trip up the Col d'Aubisque. From there, it's 38 almost entirely downhill miles to Pau, the southwest French city where the race will pause for breath Wednesday.

The summit of the Aubisque comes with so much road yet to travel that attacks there may not be rewarded. The normally understated Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis offered that it would be "stupid" for Schleck to go on the muscle -- even though he showed moxie in descending under pressure Monday.

"You just waste energy," Riis said.

Thursday's uphill finish on the Tourmalet (climbed via a different route than it will be in Stage 16) still looms as the tipping point.

Contador knows the Aubisque well. It was on that climb at the end of a stage late in the 2007 Tour that he hammered at then-leader Michael Rasmussen, unsuccessfully trying to dent the spindly Dane's armor. With a three-minute margin, Rasmussen was sitting as the presumptive race winner at the finish, only to be fired by his Rabobank team hours later for having misled drug testers earlier that season.

Contador's bike was one of eight scanned after Monday's stage for signs of a hidden engine -- the fallout from what has so far been an all-smoke, no-fire theory that riders are racing under something other than their own steam.

For many reasons, he'd better hope that all the moving parts on that machine are in perfect working order this week.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.