At a press conference Wednesday held at his team’s hotel, Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck promised that he would attack race leader Alberto Contador in a bid to reclaim the yellow jersey on the legendary Col du Tourmalet finish of Thursday’s stage 17.
The Tour de France’s 17th stage features a pair of category 1 climbs, the Col du Marie-Blanque and the Col du Soulor, before the long slog up the hors categorie Tourmalet, an 18.6km climb which averages 7.5 percent gradient.
“There’s only one way to attack, and that is on the Tourmalet,” he said.
Schleck, the runner-up of last year’s Tour behind Contador, enters stage 17 with an eight-second deficit to the Astana rider. Popular consensus is that Schleck will need to start the 52km stage 19 time trial with an advantage of between one and two minutes over the Spaniard in order to win the Tour.
In order to do gain that time, Schleck must attack on the Tourmalet, perhaps at the risk of losing his second-place position.
“I’m willing to risk it,” Schleck said. “I have to try everything.”
Schleck and Contador spent the second rest day lodging at the same hotel, in Pau, but with different schedules. After a reconnaissance ride of Cote de Renoir and the Col du Marie-Blanque, the first two categorized climbs on Thursday’s stage 17, Schleck held a press conference at 2:30 p.m.
A throng of Tour media showed up, hungry for a story after Contador called off his press conference, saying he’d already spoken to the press following stage 16 Tuesday.
Schleck didn’t disappoint, promising to attack Contador.
“I know what I need to do tomorrow, and I’m ready,” he said. “I’m pretty sure tomorrow I will have a good day.”
Schleck said he and Contador had crossed paths earlier in the day at their hotel, and that they had fully reconciled following the controversy on stage 15 when Contador took the maillot jaune from Schleck after the Saxo rider slipped his chain during an attack 3km from the summit.
“Yesterday Alberto spoke with me, and he apologized,” Schleck said. “He said (attacking the race leader during a mechanical problem) was the wrong decision, but it’s hard to make a decision in these moments. I’m not angry anymore. That case is closed for me, and it should be for other people as well. I don’t like it when fans boo at Alberto, and yesterday I told every TV station that I spoke with that to get the message across. He’s a big champion, and for me, the case is closed. End of story.”
After the incident, Schleck had said he had “anger in his stomach.” Wednesday, he said the anger had subsided. “Now I’m not angry, just motivated.”
Asked if Contador might have an advantage over Schleck because the Spaniard had taken the day off from the media, Schleck smiled.
“I’ve had a very nice rest day,” he said. “I was up early our training, had lunch, now this (press conference), and then I’ll go to my room and lock the door. And if someone is knocking, they will be in trouble. But seriously, this is part of my job, and to be honest, I have never seen so many cameras around me. It’s kind of cool.”
Schleck knows he needs to be wearing the maillot jaune heading into Saturday’s 52km stage 19 time trial. Just how much time he needs, and how much he might be able to take out of Contador on the Tourmalet, is the biggest question remaining in this Tour de France
“I know I need to be in yellow on the time trial start ramp to have a chance to win this Tour. I can’t say how much time I will need,” Schleck said. “I do know that I am motivated and that I am focused, and I am sure that I will do a good time trial. I don’t know if I will need 30 seconds, or a minute. Of course I’d prefer to have two minutes than one minute.”
Thus far, Schleck and Contador have been evenly matched in the mountains at this Tour, prompting doubts about just how Schleck might be able to take that sort of time out of Contador on the Tourmalet.
Prodded to explain his coolness and confidence heading into stage 17, Schleck said it was simple — he was on the best form of his life.
“I just feel it,” he said. “I haven’t given everything yet. When I dropped the chain, I lost 50 seconds (to Contador, Samuel Sanchez and Denis Menchov). Over the top (of Port de Bales), the gap was 15 seconds. I bridged a good gap there, and that gives me good confidence. I have been suffering at this race, but on the climbs I feel I can give it more. The Tourmalet is a very hard climb, but it’s one I like because it’s steady and you don’t have to change rhythm too much.”
Asked whether he might attack Contador if the Spaniard were to a slipped chain during the Tourmalet showdown, Schleck was briefly at a loss for words before answering, “It won’t happen. In any case, the Tour is not going to be decided by a chain slipping.”