Not counting the two white jerseys he earned as the race’s best young rider, Sunday’s stage 8 win was the first Tour de France victory for Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck — and the young Luxembourger is hungry for more.
Schleck jumped out of a select group of climbers and GC contenders just inside the 1km to go banner atop the Morzine-Avoriaz climb, and outsprinted Olympic road champion Samuel Sanchez for the win.
And in what was perhaps bigger news than his first Tour stage win, or the fact that the 6-foot-1, 145-pound Schleck had won a sprint, was the fact that none of the race’s GC contenders — Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso or Denis Menchov — could follow the attack.
The Saxo Bank rider crossed the line 10 seconds ahead of his GC rivals, riding into second overall, 20 seconds behind Evans, the new race leader.
“It was my first real victory of the season,” said Schleck, adding that he had no regrets that he hadn’t tried his move earlier. “I am very happy with the stage win. We had a plan, and I had to follow it. In the middle of a hard climb is not the time to start experimenting with a new plan. Maybe it was possible to take the yellow jersey today, but I want the yellow jersey in Paris, so we’ll take it step by step. It will come.”
Schleck admitted it was a punishing stage, and one that he felt nervous about beforehand.
“I was hoping it would be decisive, though I was quite nervous this morning,” he said. “I knew it would be a stage where whoever had the legs would be up front.
“It is in these types of stages that we see the real favorites, the contenders, and the others who are struggling. I was right up there 100 percent, both physically and mentally. It’s a great victory for me, but now I’m taking aim at yellow.”
After finishing second overall to Contador at last year’s Tour, Schleck came in to this year’s race as a co-leader at Saxo Bank alongside his older brother Frank. But when Frank crashed out with a broken collarbone on the stage 3 cobblestones, the younger Schleck assumed the role of team leader.
“Before we had two cards to play, and now it’s just one, so it’s not as super a position to be in,” Schleck has repeated in the days since his brother’s crash. “But I’m OK to take that weight on my shoulders. The whole team has my back.”
Without his elder brother, Schleck has turned to Jacob Fuglsang and Chris Sorensen to ride with him in the high mountains. Neither rider can match Frank Schleck’s climbing skills, but both stuck with the younger Schleck until the final climb, eventually dropping back and finishing with the Lance Armstrong group, almost 12 minutes back.
After the stage, Schleck was again quick to thank his Saxo Bank teammates, saying, “I took a lot of confidence out of my performance today. It puts me in a very good position right now, but I have to thank my team for being always around me, protecting me.”
Asked for comment on Armstrong’s dismal day, Schleck was gracious and spoke with reverence of the seven-time Tour winner.
“Lance had a pretty bad crash, it was right in front of me, actually,” Schleck said. “We went though a roundabout, and his front tire punctured. I actually almost went down with him. He came back, but he was pretty beaten up, and on the (Col de la Ramaz) climb he lost contact with our group. I thought he could be up there at the front, and all respect for him, to still be there, and to see what he did all year already. To be honest, I’m a little sorry for him; he really wanted this, his last Tour. I’m sure his morale is down. But I think he could still win a stage.”
With just a 20-second deficit to Evans, and a 41-second lead over Contador, Schleck said he’s fully aware that he’ll need to widen his lead prior to the 52km stage 19 time trial if he’s to have any chance of winning this Tour. Schleck recently won the Luxembourg national time trial championship, but he choked during the wet 9km prologue in Rotterdam, finishing a full minute down on riders like Armstrong and Contador.
“I know I need to be in yellow on the start ramp,” Schleck said. “If I go into the time trial in second position I won’t beat Cadel or Alberto. I don’t know what sort of lead I’ll need; I can’t tell you a number now, if it’s one minute, or 10 minutes. I do know that when I have pressure in a time trial, I can go really, really fast. I might not need as much time as you think. I’m not going to pull a time trial like I did at the prologue. I’m going to do better than that.”
For now, Schleck said wanted to take advantage of Monday’s rest day, study the general classification, and reflect on what he’d accomplished. Tuesday’s ninth stage, from Morzine to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, is arguably the hardest in the Alps, featuring four mountain passes, for a total of 66.1km of uphill racing — 25.5km of which will be over the Col de la Madeleine, with a summit 32km from the finish line.
“I’ve got to get my head around the position that I’m in now,” said Schleck. “There are still a lot of very hard days, but I am pretty relaxed for the moment. I’ve done my thing, and I hope I can do a great race and I hope I don’t have a bad day.”