July 22, 2010 7 Comments
On Monday Alberto Contador demonstrated the ruthless behaviour of a winner. Today he also showed, for perhaps the first time in his three Tours de France, the behaviour of a champion by allowing Andy Schleck the courtesy of finishing first at the summit of the Col du Tourmalet after a titanic two-man battle in which they left the rest of the field quite literally lost in the mist. By crossing the line immediately behind Schleck, the defending champion all but assured himself of a third yellow jersey when the race concludes in Paris on Sunday afternoon.
On a day which started out cold, wet and miserable and gradually got better, a seven-man break quickly established itself soon after the peloton had departed from Pau and had established a lead of around nine minutes by the summit of the day’s second climb, the first-category Col de Marie-Blanque. In between was Carlos Sastre, who attempted to bridge the gap and almost but did not quite succeed. Having at one stage closed to within a minute of the leaders, he would ultimately be absorbed back into the bunch and quickly shot out of the back, his energy spent in an enormous effort that was no less beautiful for its futility.
In the meantime, an Astana-led, rain-jacketed peloton tip-toed down the wet descent before starting to gently reel in the deficit on the slopes of the Col du Soulor. Here the peloton came under attack from an unusual source – a herd of sheep which veered perilously across the road in front of the pack, before running alongside the riders for a while.
By the time the peloton arrived at the foot of the Tourmalet, they had reduced the leaders’ advantage to under four minutes, with Astana, Saxo Bank and Rabobank driving forwards to support the ambitions of Contador, Schleck and Denis Menchov. With the gap tumbling with virtually every pedal-stroke, the breakaway group began to disintegrate rapidly as both the urgency and the gradient increased. The two Sky men, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha, were the first to crack, tumbling rapidly backwards into the unwelcoming and unsympathetic clutches of the peloton. As the engine room of the Saxo Bank team – first Fabian Cancellara, then Chris Anker Sørensen and finally Jakob Fuglsang – took it in turns to bury themselves for the cause, the peloton started to thin out rapidly as even the elite riders slipped inexorably towards the back of the group and then found the elastic snapping. The rainbow jersey of Cadel Evans was swallowed up and extinguished by the gloom of the gathering fog. Contador’s senior lieutenant Alexandre Vinokourov soon befell the same fate, followed by his last Astana teammate, Daniel Navarro.
One by one the bit-part players were removed from the stage. And then, just as Fuglsang finally blew up with a little over 10 km remaining, having fulfilled the team’s game-plan to the letter, Schleck kicked – and this time his chain stayed in place. Contador leapt onto his wheel, and within 200 metres, the elite group had been reduced to a pair of yellow and white-clad rockets on two wheels and a weary bunch of chasers. Schleck and Contador looked as if they had sprouted wings, leaving the rest of the top ten in this year’s race floundering in their wake, swatting aside the remains of the breakaway group as if they weren’t even there, and closing a gap of over a minute to its final survivor, Alexandr Kolobnev, in the space of barely 1,500 metres.
At times it looked as if the pair were racing in a time long gone by, with the combination of the fog and the mountain turning the high-speed, multi-coloured beast which is the Tour de France peloton into a slow-moving, rag-tag, monochrome affair. It certainly looked as if they were in a race of their own: actually, they were. For every pedal turn of the final eight kilometres, Schleck tried every trick he knew to shake off Contador in search of the minute or more he knew he needed to find, but nothing he did seemed to make any difference. Whether it was sustained high tempo or stop-start accelerations, the defending champion covered every move so quickly as to render them almost invisible to the naked eye. It was a tremendously gutsy showing by Schleck, but it was also a superlative display of defensive riding by Contador. Only once, with under four kilometres left, did Contador nose ahead with one brutal kick, but Schleck quickly clawed him back and, to his immense credit, kept plugging away.
In spite of the tactical jousting, their advantage over their pursuers continued to extend, peaking at around 1:20 and holding steady even through the final kilometre as Contador sat relentlessly nose-to-tail on Schleck’s wheel, ready to pounce in the final stretch and claim what would have been his first stage win this year. But pounce he did not, allowing Schleck to take the spoils of battle with an emotional punch of the air, knowing full well that he had achieved exactly what he had set out to do in avoiding the loss of any time. The image of the pair putting an arm around each other as they rode on after the finish was a pleasing one at the end of an awkward week.
Although privately he knows that his chance to win the Tour effectively died today, Schleck was far from downcast at the end:
I’m satisfied with the stage win but I also wanted to turn white into yellow, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible. I changed rhythm and I tried everything but I think we’re on the same level on the climbs. In the end he [Contador] didn’t sprint to win the stage because I did the most work. I have a lot of respect for that; it shows that he’s a great champion. El Pistolero is strong, huh? I could not drop him. He was always there. He even attacked me to show, “Hey, listen, young boy, I’m still here. You’d better stop playing these games with me.”
I know that Alberto is stronger than me in the time trial. Who knows what will happen? I will keep fighting.
Contador admitted that his task had been made easier by having the luxury of being able to follow Schleck’s attack and ride defensively:
It was very difficult today. Andy was really strong. I knew if I could stay with him, I could get through the day. The truth is I had good legs.
It was important to defend the jersey today. I attacked him once, but I could see he was strong. Everyone always asks if the Tour is over. It’s never over until Paris.
It is easy to forget that there were 169 other men who finished today’s stage, but Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal underlined an impressive Tour by finishing fourth today and moving up to eighth overall. Samuel Sánchez finished eight seconds ahead of Denis Menchov despite a serious-looking fall early in the day, although his 21-second advantage is unlikely to be enough to defend his third place overall. And Chris Horner, the forgotten man in a RadioShack containing Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden, finished eighth on the day and now stands tenth on GC, higher than any of his more illustrious teammates.
Finally, there was no change in the green jersey standings – that will almost certainly go all the way to Paris – but Anthony Charteau was confirmed as the winner of the polka dot jersey in a competition that fizzled out after none of the main contenders scored any points today. (Really, if not for the fact that it is the only jersey the French win these days – Charteau makes it 11 victories in the last 17 years – the competition is barely worth the effort.)
For Contador, the act of allowing Schleck to win came at a not insignificant cost, as he remains on track to become only the seventh man to win the Tour without claiming a single stage. But it was a classy gesture which goes some way to repairing the PR damage his actions and words caused after stage 15, refuting the accusation that he is a rider who races ruthlessly and is incapable of winning with grace. By not winning the battle today, it did no damage whatsoever to his chances of triumphing in a war which is now all but won. Alberto Contador may never be the most popular Tour champion, but then neither is Armstrong. But, like the American, he does have the makings of a great champion. And, as he demonstrated today at the summit of one of the most venerated mountains on the Tour’s itinerary, he now realises that sometimes finishing second can be even better than being first.
And so we exit the Pyrenees, after a hugely thrilling stage which, although it didn’t quite give us the drama of a decisive result, gave us spectacle in abundance. Now we are literally on the downward slope. No more mountains, just flat, rolling roads from here to the blessed relief of the streets of Paris. It may not be visible on the horizon yet – even after the fog has lifted – but the end is now very much within sight, and it is an end which, barring major mishap, will see Alberto Contador wearing yellow on the Champs-Élysées for the third time.
Stage 17 result:
1. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 5:03:29
2. Alberto Contador (Astana) same time
3. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +1:18
4. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +1:27
5. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +1:32
6. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +1:40
7. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +1:40
8. Chris Horner (RadioShack) +1:45
9. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +1:48
10. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +2:14
General classification (yellow jersey):
1. Alberto Contador (Astana) 83:32:39
2. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:08
3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +3:32
4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +3:53
5. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +5:27
6. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +6:41
7. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +7:03
8. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +9:18
9. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +10:12
10. Chris Horner (RadioShack) +10:37
23. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +37:58
24. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +41:03
171. Bert Grabsch (HTC-Columbia) +4:26:56
Points classification (green jersey):
1. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 191 pts
2. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 187
3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 162
4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 149
5. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 138
Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):
1. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 143 pts
2. Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) 128
3. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 116
4. Alberto Contador (Astana) 112
5. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) 99
Stage 18 preview:
Start & finish: Salies-de-Béarn > Bordeaux
Distance & type: 198 km, plain
Prediction: This should be a relatively straightforward transition stage ending in a bunch sprint. However, with the sprinters weary after the Pyrenees, a determined escape group may have a better chance than usual of surviving. Expect the usual breakaway suspects – plus anyone who has yet to really show themselves at this Tour and has yet to secure a new contract for next year – to be desperate to work their way into what may well be a larger break than normal. With the fate of the green jersey still in the balance, do not be surprised if Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi pop up in the breakaway too. Nonetheless, expect the peloton to come back together in time for the finish. Just. And expect a small British fellow in green shades to be in the hunt for his fourth stage win …
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