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Tour de France

Schlecks in driver’s seat going into the Battle on the Beille

LOURDES, France (VN) — Will Plateau de Beille once again play king-maker at the Tour de France?

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1998 Tour de France: Marco Pantani wins at Plateau de Beille
The Plateau de Beille tradition started with Pantani in 1998. AFP Photo

LOURDES, France (VN) — Will Plateau de Beille once again play king-maker at the Tour de France?

The brutally steep climb — at least in the opening kilometers — has crowned the eventual Tour de France winner. In the four stages that have ended high at the isolated cross-country skiing resort, the stage winner has gone on to claim the maillot jaune in Paris.

With three hard days looming in the Alps, the favorites downplayed the importance of Plateau de Beille in how it will impact the final podium order on the Champs-Elysees on July 24 in Paris.

“We’re looking forward to tomorrow, but we don’t expect the Tour to be decided there,” said Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek). “Yesterday was the first act in the Pyrenees. We’re eager for act two.”

All eyes will be on the Schleck brothers, who carry the momentum into the stage after dominating Thursday’s opening mountain stage up Luz-Ardiden. Leopard-Trek shredded the field up the Tourmalet and the Schleck brothers one-two punched Alberto Contador.

Frank Schleck told VeloNews that they will try to attack Contador, who is on the ropes after a rough and tumble first half of the 2011 Tour.

“Yes, we have to take every opportunity we have,” said Frank, who attacked into second place overall at 1:49 behind Thomas Voeckler. “I do not feel any pressure. I will do my best and not have any regrets.”

Tour de France stages at Plateau de Beille

1998 – Stage 11, started in Bagneres-de-Luchon, 170km, Marco Pantani won stage (Jan Ullrich held jersey, finished second overall)
2002 – Stage 12, started in Lannemezan, 198km, Lance Armstrong won stage in yellow
2004 – Stage 13, started in Lannemezan, 205.5km, Armstrong won stage (Thomas Voeckler wore jersey, finished 18th overall)
2007 – Stage 14, started in Mazemet, 170km, Alberto Contador won stage (Michael Rasmussen held jersey, but was later removed from race)

The burning question is the condition of Contador, who won the stage in 2007 and later went on to win his first of six consecutive grand tours that he’s started.

At uz-Ardiden, the Schlecks managed to drop Contador, who was visibly struggling over the Tourmalet and then up the final 13.3km climb. Contador, however, only gave up 13 seconds to Andy Schleck after losing his wheel in the final kilometer.

Inside the Contador camp, there’s quiet optimism that the three-time Tour champion can bounce back.

“There’s no panic. We are still confidenet that Alberto can win the Tour,” Jesus Hernandez, one of Contador’s most dependable climbers, told VeloNews. “Alberto had a bad day (Thursday). If he only lost a little bit of time on what was his bad day, then we’re relieved. Alberto is feeling better already. We hope to get out of the Pyrénées with options for winning still intact.”

2004 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong wins at Plateau de Beille
Armstrong outkicked Ivan Basso (barely visible behind him in this photo) to win in '04. Photo: Graham Watson

That kind of talk suggests that Contador will be riding to limit his losses at Plateau de Beille.

Contador is racing in unfamiliar territory and it will be interesting to watch if he can afford to simply ride to limit his losses.

Typically, the Spanish climber is the one setting the tempo and making the attacks. Hampered by a bum knee, Contador has been sliding backwards on GC relative to his top rivals.

“I got through today’s stage pretty well. My knee hurt a little bit at the beginning of the stage, but later I felt better. I hope to be in perfect conditions tomorrow,” Contador said. “We’ll see how the legs are. I think it’s up to the Schlecks to make the race. They’re in a complicated situation with Evans, who is riding well and who is super-strong in the time trial. I will see how I feel. If my legs feel good, I will attack.”

The final climb comes at the end of a very demanding course that includes no fewer than five climbs to soften up the legs. A breakaway is sure to go away and Europcar will do its best to try to keep Thomas Voeckler well-protected, but the pressure will fall on Leopard-Trek to control the race.

“Alberto’s knee is better, better, better,” Saxo Bank-Sungard sport director Philippe Mauduit. “It’s important that we do not lose more time tomorrow. We hope to take time. We shall see.”

The other favorites tried to play down the pressure and expectations going into Saturday’s shoot out, but the tension couldn’t be tighter as the Tour grinds toward its next major battleground.

“There will be fireworks tomorrow, don’t worry,” said Cadel Evans (BMC), third overall.

Ivan Basso, who responded well at Luz-Ardiden to climb into fifth overall, said he doesn’t expect to see the winner crowned at Plateau de Beille.

“I hope that the stage isn’t such a determining factor in the Tour,” Ivan Basso said. “For sure, one of the ‘big’ will win the stage, but there’s still a lot of Tour left in this race. It’s a very hard climb and it fits well to my characteristics. One thing’s sure, it will be a very difficult stage.”

2011 Tour de France stage 14 profile
The stage 14 profile

While all attention is on the “four-horse” race between the Schlecks, Evans, Basso and Contador, others are still in the hunt. Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and even Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervelo) could come alive with an attack that could inspire their podium chances.

What’s sure is that after two mountain stages so far through the 2011, a dominent candidate for victory has not managed to assert himself. That all might change by the finish line at Plateau de Beille.

History has a way of repeating itself, especially at the Tour.