Andy Schleck says that his win today on the summit of the Col du Tourmalet in Stage 17 of this year's Tour de France “is a dream come true,” and despite Alberto Contador crossing the line half a bank length behind him to retain the yellow jersey, the Team Saxo Bank rider still insists that “everything is possible” in Saturday’s individual time trial from Bordeaux to Paulliac.
As he has done throughout most of this year’s Tour, Contador marked Schleck closely throughout today’s stage, the sole moment of distraction being when a flock of sheep decided to wander across the road and through the group containing the main overall contenders near the summit of the day’s penultimate climb, the Col de Soulor.
By not allowing Schleck to take so much as a second off him today, defending champion Contador is set to win his third Tour de France on Sunday, having moved into the yellow jersey amid controversy on Monday when he passed and then rode away from Schleck after the latter's chain dropped as he attacked on the Port de Balès.
Ahead of today’s final mountain stage, it was widely considered that the Luxembourg rider would have to gain at least a minute’s advantage, ideally more, to stand any chance of negating the Astana rider’s expected superiority in the time trial.
Afterwards, Schleck, who had attacked 10km from the summit of the Tourmalet, Contador going with him immediately as they left the other riders towards the top of the overall standings in their wake, told the Team Saxo Bank website: “I'm so happy about today's win. To win here on Tourmalet is dream come true for me.”
He continued: “I was very optimistic and wanted to take the jersey today but as it turned out, Contador was simply impossible to drop even though I did all I could to do so.”
In the first few kilometres of the climb, Saxo Bank riders Fabian Cancellara, Chris Anker Sorensen and Jakob Fuglsang had each put in big turns at the front of the group as they sought to put pressure on Contador ahead of their team leader making his move.
“My team was doing a fantastic job putting me in the best position possible before the finale,” acknowledged Schleck, “but he [Contador] did a great stage as well.”
Schleck maintained, however, that he remains focused on Saturday’s 52km time trial, despite the fact that Contador is one of the best riders around at the discipline. At this stage of last year’s race, the Spaniard won the final Lake Annecy time trial, on a course 11.5km shorter than Saturday’s, with Schleck 1 minute 45 seconds down in 21st place.
The Saxo Bank star maintains, however, that he is “still motivated for the time trial,” insisting, “only eight seconds separates me from the overall win and anything can happen, everything is possible.”
Interviewed by French sports daily L’Equipe after the end of the stage, Contador said that he’d felt good all day, and the sudden burst of acceleration that briefly took him past his rival on the closing kilometres of the climb of the Tourmalet was his way of sending a signal that he was up for anything Schleck could throw at him.
“What happened is that Andy imposed a very quick, very intense rhythm during the climb,” explained Contador. “He rode very strongly to widen the gap on the other riders on the general classification. Me, I was intent on concentrating on him. We had words, but those are things which belong on the race and which remain between us,” he continued.
“I was feeling really good all day,” Contador went on. “ At one point, I accelerated to show him [Schleck] that I had the legs, to say to him, ‘Look, I’m here too.’ Right up to the line, I concentrated on him, I thought of the general classification. Winning the stage was secondary.”
The Astana rider claimed that having the yellow jersey ahead of the final time trial was a comfort to him. “Sure, that gives me piece of mind, because I’m going to make time on others. But that wasn’t really today’s goal,” he continued. “The objective was not to lose time. I felt good, that gave me confidence. Before imagining if I could still lose the Tour, I had to think about winning it.”
Contador continued: “During the race, you can lose everything at any moment. Since the start of the race, each day has offered a particular story. I still haven’t won the Tour de France, there remains a reasonably long time trial. Andy is strong, he can pull of a good time trial. But today, I took a great step towards victory.”
Asked how he felt his fitness was compared to last year’s race, the Spaniard claimed that despite some commentators saying that he perhaps wasn’t in better shape than last year, he had felt good today and on last Friday’s Stage 12 to Mende, where he finished second to Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez.
But, he pointed out, “the race situation can be different. I’ve perhaps raced more conservatively. There are days when I feel good but I haven’t the opportunity or interest to attack. The most important thing is to secure the final victory in Paris… and to grow old,” he laughed.
Tomorrow, Contador and his Astana team will retuen to keeping a watchful eye on Schleck on a day tailor-made for the sprinters, assuming a breakaway doesn’t survive all the way to Bordeaux on the 198km stage which begins in Salies de Béarn.
With the yellow jersey likely to go to Contador, Schleck almost assured of his third young rider’s white jersey in a row and the polka dot jersey already consigned to Anthony Charteau of Bbox Bouygues Telecom, attention now turns to the points competition.
Certainly, the sprinters will be looking to stretch their legs and today, Katusha’s Robbie McEwen, a former mountain biker who has won the green jersey three times, celebrated the final mountain of the Tour in the way he does every year, pulling a wheelie as he crossed the line on the Tourmalet.
The Australian has endured his fair share of difficulties during this year’s race including injuries sustained when a cameraman walked into his path following the end of a stage, but has still put in some high finishes and mathematically could win the maillot vert for a fourth time.
However, the winner instead is likely to come from the trio of Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Petacchi or Mark Cavendish, who have, respectively, 191, 187 and 162 points. It promises to be a fascinating battle.
Cervelo TestTeam’s Hushovd has crossed the line first just once during this year’s race, on Stage 3, which included cobbled sections of the Paris-Roubaix route. In the sprint, however, he has been off the pace, more often than not, and owes his current lead to his ability to pick up points in the mountains.
Petacchi, meanwhile, has two stage wins to his name, and the Lampre-Farnese Vini rider has also amassed points by being competitive on the three occasions that Cavendish has got the better of him. But this week’s news that the Italian is under formal investigation in his native country for using performance enhancing drugs may well prove a distraction for him.
Cavendish, who had a wretched start to the Tour, came good before the Alps, winning Stages 5 and 6, and also won Stage 11 into Bourg-lès-Valence last Thursday, although that victory was overshadowed by the subsequent disqualification from the Tour of his leadout man at HTC-Columbia, Mark Renshaw.
However, the Australian’s absence didn’t prevent Cavendish from leading the bunch home second behind breakaway winner Alexander Vinokourov of Atsana in Revel two days later, and if he has managed to retain that form coming out of the Pyrenees, the green jersey could be his.
There are two intermediate sprints, with six points for the first rider, four for the second, and two for the third, on both tomorrow’s stage and Sunday’s 102.5km final day, which culminates with eight fast and furious laps of the Champs Elysées, where 12 months ago Cavendish won easily to claim his sixth stage of the 2009 race.
With 35 points going to the winner of the stages tomorrow and Sunday, there’s still an outside chance the Manxman could top the classification in Paris, but Petacchi would need to perform worse across both stages than he is done in the sprints to date.
Hushovd, for his part, needs to do better in the sprint finishes than he has done over the last three weeks to guarantee winning the green jersey for the second year in a row, and is likely to target intermediate points on both stages to ensure he has as comfortable a cushion as possible.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.