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Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: It’s gonna be a tight time trial to decide the Tour

Cadel Evans has the advantage, but Andy Schleck is confident

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Cadel Evans has the advantage, but Andy Schleck is confident

2010 Tour de France stage 19, Cadel Evans
Evans in the final time trial of the 2010 Tour de France, which he rode with a broken arm. Photo: Graham Watson

GRENOBLE, France (VN) — Just as happens in any closely fought Tour de France, the last time trial will determine the destiny of the final yellow jersey, and the most common outcome of such Tours is success for the man who goes into that time trial wearing the yellow jersey.

On Saturday in Grenoble, BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans has to overcome 57 seconds on new race leader Andy Schleck in 42.5km, an average gain of 1.35 second per kilometer. That’s well within the Australian’s capabilities, but that was also the case in 2008 when Schleck’s then-Team CSC teammate Carlos Sastre had a 1:34 cushion before the time trial and only lost 29 seconds to the Australian over 53km, to keep the yellow jersey by 1:05.

Only four times in the past 50 years has the underdog won: Jan Janssen over Herman Van Springel in 1968 (overcoming a 16-second deficit over 55.2km); Stephen Roche over Pedro Delgado in 1987 (21-second margin over 38km); Greg LeMond over Laurent Fignon in 1989 (50-second margin over 24.5km); and LeMond over Claudio Chiappucci in 1990 (5-second margin over 45.5km). There was one more instance, in 2006, when Floyd Landis took the lead from Oscar Pereiro only to be stripped of his title for a positive drug test.

So the 50-second deficit that LeMond overcame in 1989 to beat Fignon by 58 seconds and win the Tour by eight seconds, is the record. LeMond’s average time gain in the TT 22 years ago was 2.36 seconds per kilometer — which makes Evans’ goal of 1.35 look less intimidating.

2009 Tour de France, Annecy time trial, Andy Schleck.
In Annecy in 2009, Schleck held on to second place in the Tour by finishing 21st, in 50:15. Evans was 31 seconds faster. Photo: Graham Watson

Asked what sort of chance he stood against Evans, Andy Schleck said after stage 19 at L’Alpe d’Huez, “We know Cadel is a time trial specialist and I’m not. I still think I stand a chance. A time trial at the end of a three-week Tour is very different than a time trial on any other day.”

Evans was more succinct when asked how he would tackle the time trial. “Start as fast as possible. Finish as fast as possible. Hope it’s fast enough,” he said Friday evening

The BMC doctor Max Testa, who has been overseeing Evans’ health and recovery at this Tour and has been working with pro racers for 25 years, feels that the Aussie has a slight advantage.

“Andy Schleck, especially on a course like tomorrow, is not an easy client. Andy didn’t impress much in that TT at the Tour de Suisse {just before the Tour], but here we have another Schleck,” he told VeloNews. “It’s hard to say what will happen but I know Cadel will give 100-plus percent. That’s his personality.”

Another expert, Sky team director Sean Yates, who won a TT stage of the 1988 Tour, said, “I think Evans has it in the bag. I think it’s possible that Andy could keep it, but if you look back at all the TTs they’ve done, Evans has probably taken more than a minute out of Andy every time.”

That’s not quite correct. Though Evans was 1:57 faster than Schleck at the 2008 Tour’s final TT over 55.5km at St. Amand-Montrond, the younger Schleck was not in contention for a high GC place. But in 2009, in the hilly 40.5km TT at Annecy, Evans was only 31 second faster than Schleck — who was in contention for the podium but Evans was not.

One big advantage that Evans has on Saturday is that he raced on this exact same course in Grenoble just over a month ago in the Critérium du Dauphiné. That TT was held in a mixture of rain and sunshine with strong winds (a 20-kph breeze is forecast Saturday). To show how Evans fared, we can look at the three separate sections of the 42.5km circuit, comparing his times with those of Tony Martin, who won the TT.

Actual top-15 GC

1. Andy Schleck 3,292.5km in 82:48:43
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:53
3. Cadel Evans at 0:57
4. Thomas Voeckler at 2:10
5. Damiano Cunego at 3:31
6. Alberto Contador at 3:55
7. Samuel Sanchez at 4:22
8. Ivan Basso at 4:40
9. Tom Danielson at 7:11
10. Pierre Rolland at 8:57
11. Jean-Christophe Peraud at 9:42
12. Rein Taaramae at 10:30
13. Kevin De Weert at 12:55
14. Jérôme Coppel at 16:49
15. Arnold Jeannesson at 17:42

Besides its solid distance and more than 1,600 feet (500 meters) of climbing, the circuit features a variety of roads (both wide and narrow) and some tricky descents. It’s a course that’s much more favorable to the climbers than last year’s final Tour TT at Bordeaux, which was flatter, longer and influenced by prevailing winds.

The stage can be broken down into three separate sections:

  • 1. From the start in Grenoble to Vizille, a mainly straight 15km featuring a steady climb and a fast descent, where the wind favored early starter Martin. The HTC-Highroad rider really won the stage in this opening section that was most favorable to a power TT specialist like him (or world TT champion Fabian Cancellara, who’ll be a favorite Saturday). Evans lost the TT in this opening third of the stage partly because, as he said, “I was distracted before the start by some equipment problems.” Splits: 1: Martin, 19:25 (46.315 kph); 6. Evans, 20:26.
  • 2. A 12.5km return to the north from Vizille to St. Martin d’Uriage with a long climb that’s steep in the middle part. Martin took a 19 seconds out of Evans, while on this Uriage climb. Splits: 2. Martin, 20:04; 6. Evans, 20:23.
  • 3. The final 15km, opening with a technical, hair-pinned descent that was wet for the later starters and closing on straight flat streets back into Grenoble. Evans’ downhill skills seem to get better with every race bearing in mind he had slippery corners to negotiate on the first part of the descent. where others were over-cautious. Splits: 2. Evans, 15:59; 3. Martin, s.t.
2011 Tour de France stage 20 profile
2011 Tour de France stage 20 profile

Conditions will be different Saturday, when all of the Tour contenders three solid weeks of racing in their legs, the last three days climbing through the Alps. Andy Schleck said Friday, “I hope to show a great performance tomorrow. I’ve only had one bad day in this Tour. Everyone is tired now and don’t have good legs. I’m confident I can do well and bring it home to Luxembourg.”

Yates was not so sure. “Andy will have the advantage of starting last and they always say the yellow jersey gives you wings,” he said. “(But) we shall see….”