By John Wilcockson
I’m writing these words on the road to L’Alpe d’Huez where, at the end of this glorious Wednesday in the French Alps, the 95th Tour de France could be decided. The infamous 21-turn mountain climb concludes a gigantic stage 17 after the riders have already crossed the mighty Col du Galibier and Col de la Croix de Fer climbs.
This stage is almost identical to the final alpine stage of 1986, when the La Vie Claire of Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault used perfect tactics: They sent Canadian teammate Steve Bauer ahead on the descent of the Galibier, and then dropped the Carrera team’s Urs Zimmermann (who was lying second to LeMond and ahead of Hinault on GC). The Swiss was a poor descender and almost crashed trying to stay with the adroit Hinault and LeMond. Bauer then buried himself on the valley roads before the Croix-de-Fer. The two team leaders eventually split from the small front group on the top part of the Croix-de-Fer and raced together for the final 60km together;
One of my outstanding Tour memories is driving down the Croix de Fer descent at 110 kph behind Hinault and LeMond, who would cross the line at the summit of L’Alpe d’Huez holding hands in triumph. That coup by the La Vie Claire pair would be the equivalent today of CSC-Saxo Bank teammates Fränk Schleck and Carlos Sastre finishing 1-2 on the Alpe after using teammate Andy Schleck as the joker. Is that a possibility in cycling’s more calculating, and more cautious, environment two decades later?
Probably not. But, if CSC is going to get Sastre or race leader Schleck the two or three minutes they will need to hold off Cadel Evans in Saturday’s 53km time trial, they have to make some bold moves on this stage. They were expected to attack on Tuesday, and CSC did employ sophisticated tactics to get Jens Voigt in an early break and enable him to help Andy Schleck set the pace for their two team leaders on the interminable upper stretches of the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond.
They failed to get rid of the elder Schleck’s closest rivals, Bernhard Kohl and Evans, but did manage to dislodge Christian Vande Velde (on the way up the Bonette) and Denis Menchov (on the way down to the finish at Jausiers). Menchov conceded another 35 seconds, which might have been the same for Vande Velde if he hadn’t crashed and finally conceded 2:36 to the other favorites.
Even so, the American is not completely out of the picture for the podium in Paris, because he could regain that amount (or more) on Schleck, Kohl and Sastre in Saturday’s stage 20 time trial. But, first, Vande Velde has to stay with race leader Schleck and the others if he wants to have any chance of reaching the top three.
But the biggest onus is on Sastre, who has to make up 41 seconds on Evans, and then gain an extra two or three minutes if he wants to win the Tour. That will be a difficult task — unless the CSC team takes a leaf out of La Vie Claire’s playbook and attacks over the Croix de Fer.