By John Wilcockson
“Contador was the strongest today,” Saxo Bank’s Fränk Schleck said shortly after Sunday’s intense stage 15 to Verbier. “And now it will be very difficult for us to win the Tour de France. But we will try again.”
Saxo Bank surprised many on Sunday by being the team that took charge of the race on the initial slopes of the 8km climb to the finish. “We launched the attack like we planned,” said team boss Bjarne Riis. “And we are very pleased with … the results of our efforts to create the race.”
The furious acceleration by Saxo team riders splintered the field, but before their leaders Andy and Fränk Schleck could launch their planned moves, Astana’s Alberto Contador shot from the elite group of 10 riders in his irresistible climbing style. His solo attack some 6km from the summit was a leaf out of seven-time champion Lance Armstrong’s old playbook, and it enabled Contador to win the stage and grab the yellow jersey.
So the 26-year-old Spaniard goes into Monday’s rest day with a seemingly commanding overall lead of 1:37 over Astana teammate Armstrong, and 1:46 over a third-place Brad Wiggins of Garmin-Slipstream. Just behind the splendid Wiggins are the two Schlecks, who both managed to extricate themselves from the small group that was led for a long time by Armstrong and teammate Andreas Klöden.
Andy Schleck took second on the stage and moved up to fifth overall, 2:26 down on Contador, while his older brother finished fourth to move up into the top 10, 3:25 back. The other rider to come through strong on the climb when everyone was at their limit was the young Italian Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas, third on the stage, and now seventh overall,
The day’s main losers were Columbia-HTC’s Tony Martin, who rode himself to exhaustion to place 12th on the stage but lose the young rider’s white jersey to Andy Schleck; and Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde, whose 22nd place on the stage can be explained by his lack of preparation due to the serious back injuries he suffered at the Giro d’Italia.
More disappointing were the performances of the 2008 Tour’s top two finishers. The initial speed was too high for defending champion Carlos Sastre of Cervélo who couldn’t keep pace with his former teammates at Saxo Bank, but he slowly worked his back to place sixth on the stage. Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto did the same thing, and he eventually placed seventh.
It can be argued that both Sastre and Evans do better on longer, more frequent climbs, rather than Sunday’s short, sharp “sprint” finish. Therefore, we can expect to see both of them to come out fighting on the remaining three mountain stages this week. Saxo Bank’s Schleck brothers also have everything to fight for, while Wiggins and Nibali are exploring unknown territory.
On Sunday night, Armstrong paid tribute to teammate Contador as “the strongest rider in the race,” and said he would do everything he could as a teammate to ensure the overall victory for Astana. Contador was more cautious, pointing out that the final week of this Tour is difficult and saying “there will be a lot more to come from my rivals.”
It’s true that Astana has been weakened by the absence of Levi Leipheimer, while all the pressure of setting race tempo each day now falls on the already tired team workers Yaroslav Popovych, Sergio Paulinho and Haimar Zubeldia. But with Klöden and Armstrong still riding strong, it will be hard for those rivals to isolate Contador.
The team most likely to challenge Astana’s supremacy is Saxo Bank, and with both the Schleck brothers getting better as the race goes on, and with the wily Riis in charge of their tactics, expect a lot more surprises in the stages ahead. The Schlecks’ one weakness is their time-trial ability, and any time they may gain in the Alps on Tuesday and Wednesday might be lost in Thursday’s time trial at Annecy.
But with Sastre and Evans having nothing to lose, they will almost certainly try everything they can to defeat the Astana armada. No, the Tour is far from over. There’s lots of racing (and surprises) still to come.
Follow John’s twitter at twitter.com/johnwilcockson. His latest book, “Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion,” is available at www.velogear.com.