Later today, on 52 kilometres of road between Bordeaux and Pauillac, the winner of the 97th Tour de France will be decided, and while pretty much everyone expects overall leader and defending champion Alberto Contador to extend his eight-second advantage over Andy Schleck, the two protagonists in what has been a fascinating battle both insist there is everything to race for.
When Contador rolls down the ramp at two minutes past three UK time, 180 seconds after the Team Saxo Bank rider, he will know that short of an incredible ride by one of the riders further down the general classification – the closest, Samuel Sanchez, is over three and a half minutes down – all he needs to do is ensure that he finishes within seven seconds of Schleck to guarantee entering Paris in yellow tomorrow.
Of course, the expectation is that it is the Astana rider who will confirm his third victory in four years by putting in a performance similar to that of 12 months ago where, on a shorter and hillier 40.5km course around Lake Annecy, he put 1 minute 45 seconds into Schleck, who would end up trailing him by 4 minutes 11 seconds in Paris.
The Spaniard insists, however, that the outcome of this afternoon’s time trial is not a foregone conclusion, pointing out that the course does not suit his style of riding.
“At the present time I am in front, but tomorrow I’m not sure I’ll be in the same situation,” Contador said after yesterday’s Stage 18 in Bordeaux, where he came home safely in the bunch, although he conceded that “in the last two kilometers, it went very quickly and I was not completely at ease.”
Referring to today’s race against the clock, the defending champion, quoted on the Tour de France website, said “I know it’s a flat course, in the vineyards,” adding, “it does not offer much of a chance to dance on the pedals [and ride out of the saddle] throughout the course.”
He concluded: “Of course, I have to give my all and not just for me but based on the times that Andy posts. I also hope to win the stage.”
Contador will have the advantage of being the last man out on the course and will therefore know exactly what he needs to do to stay ahead of Schleck. The likelihood is that the Astana man will be able to ride within himself and avoid taking any unnecessary risks, unless Schleck puts in the ride of his career.
Which is exactly what the 25-year-old, who will be sporting the red, white and pale blue skinsuit of Luxembourg time trial champion, a title he succeeded older brother Fränk to last month, intends to do.
“I hope my legs will be okay,” said Schleck, adding that he believed today “is going to be the most important day of my cycling life. I’m ready to fight.”
The Saxo Bank rider revealed that he was “a little surprised with how good” he felt on yesterday’s stage to Bordeaux, given his battle with Contador on the Tourmalet in which neither rider buckled, Schleck crossing the line inches ahead of the Spaniard to claim the stage but gain not so much as one second in time over his rival.
“I could spin the legs at a time when I saw many riders were pushing heavy gears because they’re just dead,” he added, saying that after the exertions of the Pyrenees, yesterday “was basically a case of economizing and not spending too much energy” ahead of today’s battle.
While Schleck and Contador insist that they have both draw a line under Monday’s by now infamous ‘Chaingate’ incident, in which the Spaniard took the yellow jersey after riding hard up the road after Schleck’s chain slipped shortly after he himself had attacked on the Port de Balès, it will be interesting to hear their views should the Spaniard’s advantage heading to Paris be less than the 39 seconds he took from the Saxo Bank rider that day.
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.