Zero – that’s time difference between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador through four mountain stages so far in the 2010 Tour de France.
The sparring climbers traded barbs again in Sunday’s summit finish up Ax-3-Domaines without either of them gaining an advantage. Contador tried to shake Schleck, but the Luxembourger easily followed the sorties to retain the yellow jersey and defend his slender 31-second lead.
“It seems Andy and I are equal in the climbs this year,” a frustrated Contador admitted after Sunday’s stage. “I wasn’t my sharpest today. We spent a lot of energy in today’s stage, but it wasn’t an ideal stage to attack. The climb wasn’t very steep and it was easy to sense when the attacks were going to come. It was easy to mark the attacks from the wheel.”
So far, this Tour is a stalemate, at least when the action goes vertical.
For two natural-born climbers, the time differences have been marked in two unlikely disciplines: in the opening prologue (when Contador took 42 seconds on Schleck), and on the cobblestones in stage 3 (when Schleck gained 1:13 on Contador).
Ax-3-Domaines was the first of four decisive mountain stages across the Pyrénées and Contador lived up to his promise to attack. What the two-time Tour champion wasn’t expecting was Schleck’s resilience after two weeks of hard racing.
Schleck easily fended off Contador and recaptured momentum that Contador seemed to gain up the climb to Mende, when Contador gapped Schleck by 10 seconds in stage 12.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking right now, but he’s probably not very happy,” Schleck said. “His team rode all day, the plan was to take time on me and take away the yellow jersey. It didn’t work, he didn’t gain a single second. I think I was a little better than him today.”
That’s how this Tour’s gone so far. One day, Schleck looks sharp and gains the initiative, only to be countered by Contador in the next key battle.
The mountain yo-yoing began in the Alps, when Schleck gained 10 seconds on Contador when he pounced to victory at Avoriaz. Contador then neutralized a heavy Schleck onslaught up the Madeleine and the pair rode together to distance their rivals and make the Tour a two-man race.
On Friday, Contador seemed back at his explosive best up Mende, gaining back 10 seconds and finishing second in the stage.
Forty-eight hours later, Contador wanted to shake the stubborn Schleck, but the Saxo Bank rider is proving savvier than his age.
Rather than risk counter-attacking Contador on the relatively easy climb, Schleck decided to ride on the defensive and smother Contador’s efforts to ride away.
“I learned from my mistakes in the past. On a climb like today, I just have to stay on his wheel. It was clear I couldn’t have passed him, because he would have attacked me and gained seconds on me,” Schleck said. “He could not drop me today, that gives me a lot of confidence. I felt really good today. That gives me confidence for the rest of the Tour.”
Contador eventually saw through Schleck’s ploy and eased off the gas, hoping to entice Schleck into attacking. Schleck didn’t take the bait and even soft-pedaled as Denis Menchov (Menchov) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) bolted up the road.
Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis didn’t like seeing Schleck and Contador ease off the battle, but said Sunday’s stage was mission accomplished.
“I think it was stupid for both (to stop attacking). I don’t support those actions. When they are in the middle of it, I don’t interfere (with tactics),” Riis said. “I think Alberto tried (to drop Schleck), but you need to be strong to go away from Andy. He couldn’t do it, otherwise he would have tried it again. I am satisfied with today’s stage. The only thing (Schleck) had to do was to stay on Alberto’s wheel — that’s it.”
Contador is feeling stymied by Schleck’s stubbornness in the climbs, yet continues to believe that he will have an advantage in the final time trial at Bordeaux.
Schleck knows that he needs more time going into the final time trial and hinted that he could go on the offensive Monday on the HC climb over the Balès climb before a harrowing descent to the finish line.
“My plan was to follow him. Tomorrow is a totally different scenario,” Schleck said. “I am relaxed, but it’s not easy to be in yellow. It’s stressful, I have a lot of pressure. I won’t break down. Pressure motivates me.”