Alberto Contador, who barring any unforeseen last-day drama will step on to the Champs-Elysées podium to be acclaimed Tour de France overall winner for the third time this afternoon said that it was “a huge relief” to have seen off the challenge of Team Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck in yesterday’s 52km individual time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac.
At the start of the day, the pair had been separated by just 8 seconds, the same as the gap separating the top two riders, Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon, in the closest ever Tour de France in 1989. Contador has now increased that gap to 39 seconds, which assuming there is no change today, would make this year’s race the fourth closest of the post-Second World War II.
Talking after crossing the line in Pauillac yesterday, Contador, quoted on the Tour de France website, said: “This morning I woke up in shape, I had a good night. But today we can say that I suffered. I think Andy has also suffered a lot for the race was very difficult. I had a hard time to settle down into a rhythm.”
That was reflected in the first intermediate time split at 18.2km, which showed that Schleck, the penultimate rider on the road before the maillot jaune set off, had taken back three quarters of the Astana rider’s 8 second lead. That was as close as the Saxo Bank man came to causing what would have been a huge upset, given the two riders’ respective time trialling abilities, as Contador pulled back his advantage and then started building his own lead.
“I wanted to stay completely focused on my position… on the aerodynamics,” explained the Spaniard. “This was not my best day and I had doubts, but I won,” he continued. “A time trial at the Tour de France, it is never a race like any other.”
Contador concluded: “I am very excited because it was a victory that was difficult to attain. It had not been easy in 2007” – when he won by just 27 seconds from Cadel Evans, the second narrowest margin of victory since 1947 – and last year, but it’s unbelievable. It’s a huge relief.”
Schleck admitted afterwards that he had given his all in the time trial as he tried to defy the pre-race predictions and beat the Spaniard as well as the clock. “Everybody was saying that I was beaten before today’s stage but I said I wouldn’t give up and I tried everything today and I got pretty close,” he said.
“Until 10 kilometers from the finish, I was close but in the end [Alberto] was in a position when he could have gained quite a lot of time on me. At the finish, it wasn’t so much, huh? After over 3,500 kilometers 39 seconds is not a lot.”
It certainly isn’t and, of course, 39 seconds is the exact amount of time that Schleck, who had been overall leader, had lost last Monday when his chain slipped as he attacked Contador on the Port de Balès, the Spaniard riding away up the road to take the yellow jersey for the first time in this year’s race.
We’ll never know how things might have panned out on the Tourmalet on Friday had it been Schleck, not Contador, defending the lead, nor whether it might have made a difference had he been the last man out on the road yesterday instead of the Spaniard, or if his brother Fränk hadn’t broken a collarbone on Stage 3, but the Saxo Bank rider is philosophical about the way events turned out.
“Different circumstances, like having my brother there, would have been good for me,” he said. “I believe in everything that we do – in the race and in life. We do it because we want to do it,” adding that although he regretted dropping the chain, there was no point dwelling on it.
Turning to yesterday’s stage, Schleck insisted: “I never had doubts about how I’d go in the time trial. My team had faith in me and I went out there today… and did what I could.”
He continued: “It was not a battle between me and Contador; in a time trial you fight with yourself – you’ve got to push yourself to the limits and I tried to do that. When I finished I could barely get off my bike. I gave it everything and I think I did a pretty good time trial.”
The 25-year-old, who has the consolation of winning the young rider’s classification for the third and, given his age, final time to equal Jan Ullrich’s record, added: “I’m satisfied with today and the whole Tour. I don’t care what the time difference is. What counts is what place you have at the end, and Alberto was just better than me this year… but I’ll be back.” He concluded: “I’ve won another white jersey, two stages and I believe it’s been pretty successful Tour for the whole team.”
Besides Schleck’s own two stage victories, one in the Alps, one in the Pyrenees, team mate Fabian Cancellara won both the Prologue in Rotterdam three weeks ago and yesterday’s time trial, setting a pace that only HTC-Columbia’s Tony Martin came close to matching on each occasion and doing justice to the rainbow stripes he sported as current world champion in the discipline.
“I’m proud, happy and also really, really tired,” said Cancellara after yesterday’s victory. “The Tour is long and there are always a lot of things going on. To start and finish with a win, that’s great.”
The Swiss rider had words of admiration for his team leader, too “I’m very impressed with what Andy did today,” he said. “He surprised a lot of people. I told him, ‘You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in what you’ve done of these last three weeks, and in everything you do.’ I also told him afterwards, ‘Hey, you won something today. Even if you’re second, you’ve won something more than winning here today.’”
Cancellara believes that Schleck can use the experience of this year’s race to help built a platform for overall victory in coming years. “He won respect and also the knowledge that there’s more for him to achieve in the future. He’s closer to the front.
He’s closer to Alberto in the time trial. In the mountains he’s there,” he maintained.
“I think with more work on everything and he will be there to win the Tour soon,” he added. “He was so close today that I started to believe that our hopes may have come true… but he has nothing to lose. He had six days in the yellow jersey, he won two stages and the team had a great success. I won the prologue, led the race, and won today… so we have to be satisfied.”
The only issue remaining to be resolved on today’s 102.5km procession into Paris is whether it will be Lampre-Farnese Vini’s Alessandro Petacchi, current wearer of the green jersey, last year’s winner, Thor Hushovd of Cervelo TestTeam, or HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish who ends up topping the points classification this evening.
At the moment, Petacchi is on 213 points, Hushovd 203 and Cavendish 197. There are two intermediate sprints on offer on the eight laps of the Champs-Elysées, which come 58 and 77.5km into the stage. Hushovd, who has been weak in the finale throughout the Tour, will be particularly keen to target those.
Cavendish, for his part, may use the opportunity to close the gap on the two riders above him, but those plans may be scuppered if the points are taken by others as a result of the attacks that characterise the last day of the Tour.
Should none of the leading trio take intermediate points, then Petacchi looks favourite to win the green jersey. Throughout the Tour, the rider – under formal investigation in Italy for alleged doping – has been competitive in the sprint, winning two and being there or thereabouts on the four stages Cavendish has won.
Even if the Manxman wins today, should Petacchi come home no lower than sixth, the Italian will win the points classification. Seventh, and it goes to Cavendish by virtue of winning more stages, unless Hushovd, who has been left behind on bunch sprints throughout this year’s Tour defies the form book and comes second.
With the difference between the number of points on offer for finishing in a specific position narrowing as you drop down the places, Cavendish’s task becomes harder should he fail to win today’s stage which, while a celebratory procession for most, will be keenly fought by the trio of maillot vert contenders and their respective teams.
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.