Prior to stage 17, conventional wisdom had it that Andy Schleck needed to head in to Saturday’s 52km stage 19 time trial in the maillot jaune in order to win the Tour de France. But don’t tell that to Andy Schleck, or his Saxo Bank support staff.
After Schleck’s stage win atop the Tourmalet, Saxo Bank team director Brad McGee and superdomestiques Chris Anker Sorensen and Jacob Fuglsang spoke with VeloNews.com about Thursday’s epic battle between Schleck and Contador, and what opportunities remain.
With Contador in yellow, the responsibility was on Saxo Bank to set a high pace at the base of the Tourmalet, shed as many Astana riders as possible, and launch Schleck’s attack.
The team executed to perfection, with Matti Breschel and Nikki Sorensen pulling over the penultimate climb over the Col du Soulor. From the bottom of the Tourmalet it was Stuart O’Grady and Fabian Cancellara taking early pulls before Chris Anker Sorensen put in a monster dig. Finally Fuglsang was the last man there before Schleck jumped at 10km to go.
The only men missing at the front of the bunch come crunch time were Frank Schleck, who abandoned on stage 3 with a broken collarbone, and Jens Voigt, who crashed hard on stage 16 and raced Thursday covered in gauze.
In the end, Schleck wasn’t able to take any time on Contador, but the team did take its third stage win. With only Saturday’s time trial remaining, the odds are stacked against Saxo Bank to win this Tour, but the team’s riders and staff held their heads high atop the Tourmalet.
“The team did everything according to plan,” said Chris-Anker Sorensen. “I think it’s cool we tried. We did a perfect job, and Andy did a perfect job. Contador was just too strong. But hopefully we tired him a bit today, and anything can still happen in the time trial. The race is not over until it’s over.”
McGee echoed Sorensen’s sentiments, stating that Schleck had done everything according to plan, but Contador was simply too strong.
“We discussed this morning, it was like a game of poker, and we were all in for today,” McGee said. “We put our cards on the table. But in the end it wasn’t enough. We were damned if we did, damned if we didn’t. If you tried to break the rhythm, that suited Contador more. Andy just put his head down and tried to go as hard as he could. It just shows that Contador can rally, and ride with intelligence. That’s a bloody hard one to beat at the moment.”
Of Contador’s gifting the stage win to Schleck, McGee said it was “quite respectful.”
“That’s between two champions,” McGee said. “It seemed as though Contador let it go as is. I think we’ve seen a change in the last few weeks, what’s happened. It’s evident they’re not going to be best buddies. More like maybe a sibling rivalry — two brothers, but not exactly brothers in arms. There’s definitely respect there, but it’s been hot, there have been moments. I think both of them have shown their class in handling their position.”
Whether or not Schleck overtakes Contador, or finishes second behind the Astana rider for the second consecutive year, McGee said the team would be proud of what it had accomplished — a podium finish, the best young rider competition, three stage wins, and multiple days in yellow for both Cancellara and Schleck.
“The guys have really stepped up, and I know Andy really appreciates it,” he said. “He’s never short of saying to the guys, ‘Thank you, it’s incredible.’ He’s really appreciative. There’s nothing to say against the guys, they’ve done an incredible job.”
Fuglsang agreed, adding that he believed Schleck was the strongest rider in the race, and that the GC podium in Paris isn’t yet a foregone conclusion.
“I think we can be proud of what we have done, and Andy can be proud of what he has done,” Fuglsang said. “He has had some bad luck, and we had some bad luck with losing Frank, but we kept our heads high, and we tried. We showed again today we don’t give up. I think the whole team has done a fantastic Tour.
“We will see after the time trial how it goes. It’s not over yet. A few years ago we saw (Michael Rasmussen) who fucked it up in the time trial because he was nervous. Anything can happen. Stage 18 could be a crosswind, and somebody could be sleeping, and we could take the possibility. The Tour is over in Paris.”