Andy Schleck of Lepoard Trek today responded to his critics in the best way possible, launching a stunning attack on the Col d'Izoard and going on to win the highest summit finish in the 108-year history of the Tour de France on the Galibier. By the time he crossed the line, just four men led the chase behind - his brother Frank, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso and, incredibly, race leader Thomas Voeckler, the man who refuses to give up the maillot jaune, although his lead has now been slashed to just 15 seconds. Defending champion Alberto Contador was dropped a little over 2 kilometres from the line, his hopes of retaining his title now all but over.
With three Hors Categorie climbs today, the Queen Stage of the 98th Tour de France did not disappoint although few would have predicted this morning that Andy Schleck, the man who was runner-up to Contador in 2009 and again last year, would have been the main protagonist of a gripping afternoon’s racing.
With a summit finish on the Alpe d’Huez tomorrow followed by Saturday’s individual time trial in Grenoble, the latter particularly suiting Cadel Evans of BMC Racing who slipped to fourth overall today, we’re no closer to finding out who will top the podium on the Champs-Elysées, especially since today’s stage will have exacted a big toll on some riders; it’s unlikely, however, to be three-time winner Contador, who lost nearly 4 minutes on Schleck.
Frank Schleck finished second on today's stage and now lies 1 minute 8 seconds behond Voeckler, with Evans fourth on GC a further 4 seconds back; Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso both lie 3 minutes 46 seconds off the race lead, with Contador now 4 minutes 44 seconds off the pace.
The Schleck brothers had come under fire during this year’s race for apparently being more concerned about watching their rivals rather than seizing the initiative themselves as well as voicing concerns over the last two days’ descents to stage finishes in Gap and Pinerolo. Andy’s attack on the Izoard, the second big climb today, will have silenced those critics.
Today’s parcours featured not only the highest ever summit finish in the history of the Tour de France as the race celebrated the centenary of its first visit to the Alps, but also the highest point of this year’s race, the Col d’Agnel, the first of three Hors-Categorie climbs, with the Col d’Izoard coming before the final ascent to the Galibier.
A breakaway comprising 16 riders had got away shortly before the 50-kilometre mark in today’s 200.5 kilometre stage that took the Tour from Italy back into France and was raced at a fair old clip, well ahead of the fastest predicted time schedule.
Leopard Trek had managed to put two riders into that break, one of whom, Maxime Montfort, would play a crucial role in helping Andy Schleck later in the stage.
Some 5 kilometres from the summit of the Izoard, the battle for the overall win exploded into life as he went on the attack, quickly pulling out a big gap on his rivals as the road ramped up to hit gradients in excess of 10 per cent.
Starting the day 2 minutes 26 seconds down on maillot jaune Voeckler, Schleck soon established a lead of more than a minute over the other big names and reached team mate Joost Posthuma, but the Dutch rider was already spent and proved unable to help his team leader as he rode by.
Meanwhile, there was little response from the maillot jaune group, which besides Voeckler included Contador, Evans, Basso, Samuel Sanchez and Frank Schleck, the failure to immediately chase down the younger Schleck sibling’s move presumably due to thoughts that they might catch him on the descent to the foot of the Galibier.
Up ahead, Astana’s Maxim Iglinsky crested the Izoard alone ahead of fellow breakaway riders Nicolas Roche of AG2R and Montfort, the Belgian holding back to help shepherd Schleck through the twists and turns of the long descent down to the start of that final, punishing climb.
Team Sky’s Rigoberto Uran, leading the young rider’s classification, hit a problem on the descent from the Izoard after apparently coming off his bike as he chased his closest challenger, Reim Taaramae of Cofidis, who had started the day just 59 seconds behind the Colombian. Although Uran was paced back to the main group by his team mates, he was later dropped and the Estonian now takes over the white jersey.
In the main group, Contador and Sanchez, who combined well to chase Evans into Gap two days ago and yesterday rode down into Pinerolo together, were locked in discussions, doubtless over how to react to Andy Schleck’s charge as the defending champion sought to enlist Esuskaltel-Euskadi to his cause.
By the time the road bottomed out in the valley separating the Izoard from the Galibier, Schleck had pulled out a 3 minute gap on his rivals and he and Montfort, now riding with Roche, Dries Devenyns of Quick Step and Katusha’s Egor Slin, reeled in and caught Iglinsky.
By the time Schleck was a third of the way up the 23-kilometre climb of the Galibier, however, he had just Roche and Iglinsky for company, neither of whom were inclined to help the Leopard Trek rider who had to put in all the work at the front of the trio.
Behind, Contador and Evans were obliged to lead the chase at the front of the maillot jaune group, Voeckler content to let others put in the effort, but the lack of organisation and recriminations between the riders was playing firmly into Schleck’s hands.
Finally, as Schleck headed under the 10 kilometre to go banner with just Iglinsky on his wheel by now and an advantage of more than 4 minutes, Evans finally went on the attack, his rivals led by Voeckler quickly chasing him down, although the group of 30 or so riders was strung out behind as the ascent started to take its toll.
It was still Evans leading the group with 5 kilometres to go, and the effort had reduced the group to just 10 riders, with Sanchez having been dropped and only maillot jaune Voeckler having the benefit of a team mate in the shape of the hard-working Pierre Rolland. The 24-year-old has put in huge efforts on behalf of his team leader and himself now lies only 33 seconds behind Taaramae in the best young rider's classification.
Schleck's advantage remained at 3 minutes as he passed under the flamme rouge a kilometre ahead of his rivals, with Contador, who earlier in the day had reportedly dropped back to the doctor’s car to have his knee seen to, by now distanced from the group. Inside that final kilometre, Voeckler dug deep to limit his losses, punching the air as he crossed the line having somehow done enough to keep the maillot jaune.
Today also saw a dramatic development in the chase for the green jersey, with HTC-Highroad's Mark Cavendish losing 20 points as he, along with around half the 168 riders who started today's stage, finished just over 2 minutes outside the time limit. Crucially, his closest challenger, Movistar's Jose Joaquin Rojas, was inside the 33 minute 7 second limit, so he suffers no penalty and the Manxman's lead has been slashed to just 15 points.
With tomorrow’s Stage 19 covering just 109 kilometres but featuring the climbs of the Telegraph and the Galibier again ahead of the ride up the Alpe d'Huez, another very tight time limit is in prospect, and it could be a very tough day in the saddle for Cavendish if he hasn't made a full recovery from today's efforts.
Should today's scenario repeat itself tomorrow, Cavendish could be heading onto the Champs-Elysees needing to hope that there are riders between himself and Rojas if he is to win the green jersey he has set his sights on.
Tour de France Stage 18 result 1 SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK 6h 07' 56" 2 SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK + 02' 07" 3 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 02' 15" 4 BASSO Ivan LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 02' 18" 5 VOECKLER Thomas EUROPCAR + 02' 21" 6 ROLLAND Pierre EUROPCAR + 02' 27" 7 CUNEGO Damiano LAMPRE - ISD + 02' 33" 8 TAARAMAE Rein COFIDIS + 03' 22" 9 DANIELSON Tom GARMIN - CERVELO + 03' 25" 10 HESJEDAL Ryder GARMIN - CERVELO + 03' 31" 11 IGLINSKIY Maxim ASTANA + 03' 35" 12 VANDE VELDE Christian GARMIN - CERVELO + 03' 38" 13 ZUBELDIA Haimar RADIOSHACK + 03' 44" 14 VANENDERT Jelle OMEGA PHARMA - LOTTO + 03' 50" 15 CONTADOR Alberto SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 03' 50" 16 PERAUD Jean-Christophe AG2R LA MONDIALE + 03' 55" 17 DUPONT Hubert AG2R LA MONDIALE + 04' 07" 18 SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 04' 42" 19 ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE + 04' 58" 20 COPPEL Jérôme SAUR-SOJASUN + 05' 07" Tour de France Overall Standings after Stage 18 1 VOECKLER Thomas EUROPCAR 79h 34' 06" 2 SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK + 00' 15" 3 SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK + 01' 08" 4 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING + 01' 12" 5 CUNEGO Damiano LAMPRE - ISD + 03' 46" 6 BASSO Ivan LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 03' 46" 7 CONTADOR Alberto SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 04' 44" 8 SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 05' 20" 9 DANIELSON Tom GARMIN - CERVELO + 07' 08" 10 PERAUD Jean-Christophe AG2R LA MONDIALE + 09' 27"
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.