Schleck versus Contador: It’s now a two-man race for yellow at the Tour de France

The Tour has quickly become a two-man race. The question is who has the upper hand.

2010 Tour de France stage 9. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador

What was hailed as perhaps the most open Tour de France in years has quickly turned into a duel between the top two finishers of last year’s race.

If Sunday’s stage 8 summit finish at Morzine-Avoriaz confirmed that Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador were the five-star GC favorites, Tuesday’s stage 9, which crested the Col du Madeleine with 32km remaining, all but ruled out the rest of the field for the maillot jaune in Paris.

Schleck’s attacks on the Madeleine split what remained of the GC contenders, with only Contador responding to the accelerations. After agreeing to distance themselves from the bunch, the pair rode through dropped breakaway riders such as Jens Voigt and Christophe Moreau before catching the four remaining men from the escape in the final kilometer.

Behind, the damage to the rest of the field was substantial. Levi Leipheimer, Robert Gesink and Denis Menchov each lost a little more than two minutes; Ivan Basso and Jurgen Van Den Broeck lost closer to three minutes. Racing with a fractured elbow, BMC’s race leader Cadel Evans lost eight minutes, and any hope of a podium finish in Paris.

Now wearing the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, Schleck leads Contador by 41 seconds, with Samuel Sanchez third, 2:45 back. Menchov sits 2:58 down, with Leipheimer in sixth, 3:59 in arrears.

“I think it makes it easier today, we made the point clear,” Schleck said. “Alberto and I decided to race today. The others can also attack, but they didn’t. If I were in their position, I would go tomorrow, all in, and turn this game around. Everyone is free to try that, but for now it looks like it is Alberto versus me.”

Contador agreed that his strategy just became much simpler.

“I had a good agreement with Andy and we took advantage of it,” Contador said. “We had a good battle on the Madeleine. At first, he was attacking me, but then we agreed to work together to arrive to the finish line (to take as much time as possible against the others). There’s still a lot of racing left, and there are still some dangerous rivals, but it’s clear now that the most dangerous rival is Andy.”

Even if the two men know they will likely be battling each other all the way to Paris, they were able to come to a gentleman’s agreement to ride with caution on the descent of the Madeleine.

“I was scared because when I came to see the roads (in reconnaissance), it was raining, and I had that memory in mind,” Schleck said. “I was afraid of that descent, and I told Alberto, ‘if you want to take risks, OK, but I won’t.’ It’s better to lose 10 seconds than to leave the race in an ambulance. Besides, I know my mother is watching the race, and during the descents she paces back and forth into the kitchen. So I told (Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis) to call my mother and tell her I wouldn’t take any risks.”

On paper, Contador is still the top GC favorite. He’s won four grand tours — the last four he’s started. And even if he’s not climbing away from Schleck as he did last year, the Spaniard is the superior time trialist, which will be crucial during the 52km stage 19 time trial.

By comparison, Schleck has never won a grand tour, having finished second overall at the 2007 Giro d’Italia, and second to Contador at the 2009 Tour. And though he won his national TT title in June, the time trial is an admitted weakness for the Luxembourger.

Schleck surrendered 42 seconds to Contador in the rainy 8.9km Rotterdam prologue, and at last year’s Tour he lost 1:45 to Contador during the 40km final time trial.

However Schleck told VeloNews earlier this year that the 2009 TT result wasn’t an accurate assessment of his abilities compared to Contador.

“I look back at last year, at the time trial in Annecy, and I didn’t do a super time trial that day,” Schleck said. “But I had the split times to Contador, and it was four minutes. I gave everything, and in the end I knew I was safe, so the last few kilometers I didn’t really have anything to win anymore. I think I could have done much better.”

And while Schleck is clearly better than he was one year ago, doubts have crept in that Contador is not the rider he was during the 2009 Tour.

“Contador is certainly not the Contador we’ve seen in the past,” said RadioShack’s Chris Horner. “His form has come down since last year.”

Leipheimer agreed, telling French newspaper Aujord’hui, “Typically (Contador) is easier on the pedals. Today the best climber is Andy Schleck.”

Given the closeness in their abilities, the relative strength of the two men’s respective teams will prove critical.

Saxo Bank is down a key rider after losing Frank Schleck on stage 3; the team also expended significant energy riding in defense of Fabian Cancellara’s maillot jaune for several days during the first week. But Saxo Bank also has a deep roster, featuring five riders — Voigt, Schleck, Cancellara, Nicki Sorensen and Stuart O’Grady — that helped bring Carlos Sastre the 2008 Tour victory.

“The team is super motivated to work for me,” Schleck said. “The team already did that from the start for Fabian, and now the same for me. And the situation is different now; I am there with Alberto in second, and third is 2:50 behind. I think over the next stages it will be easier to defend the jersey than it was in the first week.”

Astana still has all nine riders, and Daniel Navarro has ridden particularly well in the Alps. And while Contador’s Astana team is not the all-star squad he shared with Lance Armstrong in 2009, Jesus Hernandez, Paolo Tiralongo and Alexander Vinokourov have all proven strong in the Alps.

The real question, of course, is who will have the legs when it counts. With a 41-second buffer, but a handicap in the time trial, Schleck is in the unusual position of leading, yet still needing more time.

“If (Contador) wants to win this, he has to attack me,” Schleck said. “It’s also possible he might be better in Pyrenees, but I really think I’ll be better in the Pyrenees than (the Alps).”