Andy Schleck rode the stage of his life on Thursday, with a dramatic 60km-plus breakaway that put the Leopard-Trek rider into position to vie for the win of the 2011 Tour de France.
Schleck took the stage win while Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler gutted out the final climb to retain his overall lead by just 15 seconds heading into the final day in the Alps on Friday and the critical individual time trial Saturday.
Cadel Evans (BMC) showed impressive strength to trim Schleck’s lead on the final climb, but Alberto Contador lost contact with the GC leaders in the finale, seeing his chances for a repeat win at the Tour come to an end.
“I don’t want to finish fourth in Paris, and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to risk everything, it’ll work or it’ll fail,’” Schleck said at the finish.
“That’s the way I am, I’m not afraid of losing. And if my legs were hurting out in front I knew the others would be hurting to catch me up.”
He added: “I’ve won the stage, I’m into second overall, perhaps tomorrow it’ll be the yellow jersey. I wanted to take the jersey but Thomas (Voeckler) surprised everyone, it’s great for cycling.”
The day offered a brutal 200.5-kilometer race from Pinerolo to the Galibier Serre-Chevalier, at 2,645 meters the highest mountain-top finish in Tour history. On the way the route passed over two other hors categorie climbs, the Col Agnel and the d’Izoard.
The early break – caching resources
A large breakaway formed before the day’s intermediate sprint. The group’s best-placed rider was Nicolas Roche (Ag2r), 21st at 14:06. More notably, the break contained two Leopard-Trek riders, Maxime Monfort and Joost Posthuma, and two BMC riders, Marcus Burghardt and American Brent Bookwalter. When the break dissolved later in the race, the four were able to offer their GC leaders an assist as they came up to them.
“We had a very precise plan today,” Andy Schleck said after the stage. “In the morning briefing we said we would send two riders in the breakaway. We wanted one good rouleur and one good climber in the break. On the Col d’Izoard, I would attack. In cycling you make a lot of plans, but a lot of times there are factors in play that you cannot control. Today, the plan worked out perfectly.”
The Col Agnel
Leopard-Trek’s Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt set a brutal pace up the first climb, shedding the non-climbers and bringing the breakaway’s gap down from near 6 minutes back to under 5 minutes at the summit. RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer joined a group of eight that summited a half minute ahead of the yellow jersey group.
The Col d’Izoard — Schleck’s surprise move
Leipheimer’s group — as well as a foray by Philippe Gilbert — was absorbed before the start of the d’Izoard, where Voigt put the hammer down on the lower slopes, setting the stage for Schleck’s attack. The Luxembourger quickly settled into a steady pace, slowly increasing his gap while the GC leaders looked to each other to take up the chase.
Up front, Astana’s Maxim Iglinsky attacked the breakaway and went off alone.
Schleck built a minute’s lead on the ascent before catching his teammate Posthuma, who paced his leader as long as he could. Schleck then went on his own again and went over the summit with about 2:18 gap ahead of the yellow jersey group, which was being led by Contador’s teammates.
The descent and journey to the Galibier
Schleck caught Monfort early on the d’Izoard descent and railed the fast downhill, following Monfort’s lines and using every inch of the road.
On the descent and leading into the headwind transition to the base of the Galibier, Schleck and Monfort sucked up members of the early breakaway: Roche, Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) and Egor Silin (Katusha). Monfort and Schleck did the bulk of the labor as their gap passed three and a half minutes ahead of the yellow jersey group.
The Schleck group caught Iglinsky before the final climb started, and their gap grew to 3:46 hitting the 20km-to-go kite. Schleck was the Tour leader on the road by a good margin.
Behind, the yellow jersey group was near 35 riders, indicating that the chase had not yet begun in earnest and the GC leaders were regrouping their teammates and allies before the assault on the final climb. Contador and Sanchez had a long conversation at the rear of the group and Contador took what appeared to be a voluntary bike swap to a preferred machine for the finale.
The Col de Lautaret into the Galibier
Three kilometers up the Col de Lautaret, the less-steep ascent that leads into the Galibier, Monfort lost contact and Schleck did all the pace setting in the wind, with Roche and Iglinksy the last survivors on his wheel.
With 15km to go, the yellow jersey group was still losing ground as Schleck’s gap approached four minutes.
Schleck, with dark sunglasses on, looked steady, breathing deeply and setting a slightly lower cadence than his usual style as he led a suffering Roche and Iglinsky up the valley.
Finally with 14km to go, Evans and Contador took up the chase, with Frank Schleck in third position.
Oddly, Contador suddenly pulled off and faded back into the pack, leaving a frustrated Evans alone on the front. The Australian looked in vain for help from Voeckler and Basso’s teammates.
After a couple kilometers of confusion, where Andy Schleck’s gap increased to over four minutes, Contador reappeared at the front and the chase group pace quickened.
At the 10k-to-go kite, Roche lost contact with Schleck and Iglinsky.
The final 10k
As Schleck turned right onto the steeper grades of the Galibier proper, he shed Iglinsky and removed his shades for the final assault on the fan-crowded road. Behind, Evans shouldered the full burden of the chase, often riding out of the saddle into the headwind, with a long line of followers on his wheel.
Evans reduced the gap to 3:30 with 9k to go and the number of riders who could hold his wheel dwindled on the steeper Galibier climb. Sammy Sanchez surprisingly came unglued, but Voeckler was stuck to Evans’ wheel.
At 3k to go, Evans continued to ride the front of an elite group that was trimmed down to just himself, Voeckler, Frank Schleck, Contador, Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego and Voeckler’s teammate Peirre Rolland.
Inside the final 3k, Contador lost contact with the Evans group and, after a brief fight to regain contact, faded quickly back down the slope.
Schleck struggled in the final 2k, his shoulders slumping and his pedal stroke growing ragged as he panted in the thin air, but he made it across the line with a pumping right fist for one of the most dramatic stage wins and GC rides in recent history.
Evans kept on the pressure, pulling Voeckler inside the time gap necessary to hold the jersey. In the steep final 500 meters, Frank Schleck finally emerged to grab second behind his brother. Voeckler, gritting his teeth, struggled across the line alone to barely retain his jersey.
Evans, third across the line, limited the damage — Andy Schleck now leads him by 57 seconds on GC, a deficit the Australian should be able to close in Saturday’s time trial. That means if Schleck wants to enter the weekend with comfortable gap — and finally take the jersey from Voeckler — he will need to attack on Friday’s Alpe d’Huez stage.
Evans’ team manager Jim Ochowiz said, “This race is not over. Tomorrow’s another day.”
He added: “It was a hard day, an epic stage and one that everyone expected. It wasn’t a big surprise that Andy attacked. What was a surprise was the gap he made during the day.”
Friday’s stage 19 concludes with the crowd-favorite l’Alpe d’Huez. It’s less than 110km (just 68 miles) but there’s barely a kilometer of flat roads between Modane and the spectacular summit finish. After a short downhill from the start, the peloton will tackle the more difficult side of the Galibier via the Col du Télégraphe, a total ascent of 28.6km with an average 7-percent grade.
- Mark Cavendish was one of a group of 80 riders to incur a penalty for crossing the line after the 35 minute, 40 second cut off time behind Schleck. The HTC-Highroad rider was penalized 20 points but held onto the green points jersey.
- Contador finished more than a minute and a half behind Evans and later said his knee pain returned on the stage. “Victory is impossible now,” he said. “In the last 10 km I was going through a really bad phase, but it was a
difficult day from the start.
“When I got dropped all I could think about was trying to finish.”
After the stage Contador was given medicine for his knee pain, which he hopes will abate by the third and final day in the mountains on Friday.
“I’m not used to the kind of situation I was in today. Now I have to get rest, recover and look ahead to tomorrow.
- 1. Andy Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, in 6h 07′ 56″
- 2. Frank Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 2:07
- 3. Cadel Evans, BMC Racing Team, at 02:15
- 4. Ivan Basso, Liquigas-Cannondale, at 02:18
- 5. Thomas Voeckler, Team Europcar, at 02:21
- 1. Thomas Voeckler, Team Europcar, in 79h 34′ 06″
- 2. Andy Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 00:15
- 3. Frank Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 01:08
- 4. Cadel Evans, BMC Racing Team, at 01:12
- 5. Damiano Cunego, Lampre – Isd, at 03:46