Fabian Cancellara, the World and Olympic Champion, set the day’s fastest time to win Stage 20 individual time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillau this afternoon, but all eyes were on the last pair of riders on the road, his Saxo Bank team leader Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador of Astana as they fought out an epic duel to determine which of them would head to Paris as winner designate of this year’s Tour de France, the defending champion coming out victorious despite a brave ride from his rival.
Barring an extraordinary twist tomorrow on the processional stage into Paris, Contador will top the Champs-Elysees podium for the third time in four years. The pair had come into today’s stage separated by just eight seconds – coincidentally, the same as gap as the narrowest ever winning margin in the race, set in 1989 when Greg LeMond snatched victory from Laurent Fignon in a final day’s time trial into Paris.
Contador had moved into the yellow jersey last Monday when he controversially rode away from the Saxo bank rider on the Port de Balès after the latter’s chain slipped shortly after he had launched an attack that had initially caught Contador unawares. Schleck had started that stage 31 seconds ahead of him, but lost 39 seconds on the way down to the finish in Bagners-de-Luchon. Incredibly, that is exactly the length of time that now separates the pair in the general classification.
Schleck said yesterday that today would be “the most important day of my cycling life” as he sought to overturn Alberto Contador’s advantage, and in the early part of today’s 52km course, he did exactly that.
Although race radio had reported that Contador was going slightly quicker than Schleck over the opening kilometres, the first intermediate time check, which came after 18km, revealed the shock news that Schleck had gone through six seconds quicker than the Spaniard, putting him within two seconds of the maillot jaune.
That was as close as the Team Saxo Bank rider came to pulling off what would have been one a once-in-a-liftetime performance, and by the time they came through the second checkpoint at 36.5km, the advantage had swung in the Astana rider’s favour, coming through six seconds faster than Schleck to claim a virtual lead in the general classification of 14 seconds as he pushed himself to the limit.
In the end, Schleck came home in a time of 1 hour 7 minutes 10 seconds, more than six minutes behind Cancellara, but the important time was the one that Contador was setting and even as the Luxembourg rider, who has the consolation of winning the white jersey as leading young rider for a record-equalling third year in a row, crossed the line, it was clear that this year's race had gone the Spaniard's way.
Cancellara had finished his ride today more than three and a half hours before the final pair went out on the road, giving him ample time to talk his team leader through the nuances of the course, and apparently telling him to save something for the last seven kilometres, but all to no avail as Schleck's earlier effort began to take its toll.
The Swiss rider, the 39th man out on the course today, had set a stunning time of 1 hour 0 minutes 56 seconds, which only HTC-Columbia’s Tony Martin, second today as he had been in Rotterdam, came close to matching, the German finishing 17 seconds behind. Third was Martin’s team mate, Bert Grabsch, 1 minute 48 seconds down on Cancellara, with no-one else getting within two and a half minutes of the Swiss rider.
Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas finished ninth and tenth, respectively, with David Millar of Garmin-Transitions putting in the 17th fastest time today.
Meanwhile, in the top ten of the general classification, Denis Menchov of Rabobank claimed third place on the podium, leapfrogging Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez in the overall standings, while Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin Transitions moved up a place to seventh at the expense of Joaquin Rodriguez of Katusha, who dropped to eighth.
Stage 19 Result
CANCELLARA Fabian TEAM SAXO BANK 1h 00' 56"
MARTIN Tony TEAM HTC-COLUMBIA + 00' 17"
GRABSCH Bert TEAM HTC-COLUMBIA + 01' 48"
KONOVALOVAS Ignatas CERVELO TEST TEAM + 02' 34"
ZABRISKIE David GARMIN-TRANSITIONS + 03' 00"
MOERENHOUT Koos RABOBANK + 03' 03"
KIRYIENKA Vasil CAISSE D’EPARGNE + 03' 10"
TJALLINGII Maarten RABOBANK + 03' 21"
WIGGINS Bradley SKY PRO CYCLING + 03' 33"
THOMAS Geraint SKY PRO CYCLING + 03' 38"
MENCHOV Denis RABOBANK + 03' 51"
ROY Jérémy FDJ + 04' 00"
O’GRADY Stuart TEAM SAXO BANK + 04' 06"
MONFORT Maxime TEAM HTC-COLUMBIA + 04' 14"
BRUTT Pavel KATUSHA TEAM + 04' 15"
SORENSEN Nicki TEAM SAXO BANK + 04' 15"
MILLAR David GARMIN-TRANSITIONS + 04' 20"
ROELANDTS Jürgen OMEGA PHARMA-LOTTO + 04' 33"
MURAVYEV Dmitriy TEAM RADIOSHACK + 04' 38"
MORABITO Steve BMC RACING TEAM + 04' 39"
Overall Standings after Stage 19
CONTADOR Alberto ASTANA 89h 16' 27"
SCHLECK Andy TEAM SAXO BANK + 00' 39"
MENCHOV Denis RABOBANK + 02' 01"
SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL-EUSKADI + 03' 40"
VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen OMEGA PHARMA-LOTTO + 06' 54"
GESINK Robert RABOBANK + 09' 31"
HESJEDAL Ryder GARMIN-TRANSITIONS + 10' 15"
RODRIGUEZ Joaquin KATUSHA TEAM + 11' 37"
KREUZIGER Roman LIQUIGAS-DOIMO + 11' 54"
HORNER Christopher TEAM RADIOSHACK + 12' 02"
SANCHEZ Luis-Leon CAISSE D’EPARGNE + 14' 21"
PLAZA Ruben CAISSE D’EPARGNE + 14' 29"
LEIPHEIMER Levi TEAM RADIOSHACK + 14' 40"
KLÖDEN Andréas TEAM RADIOSHACK + 16' 36"
ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE + 16' 59"
VINOKOUROV Alexandre ASTANA + 17' 46"
LÖVKVIST Thomas SKY PRO CYCLING + 20' 46"
DE WEERT Kevin QUICK STEP + 21' 54"
GADRET John AG2R LA MONDIALE + 24' 04"
SASTRE Carlos CERVELO TEST TEAM + 26' 37"
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.