Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: The Schlecks race themselves into a hole

Their “no risk” tactics is playing into the hands of Evans and Contador

Their “no risk” tactics is playing into the hands of Evans and Contador

GAP, France (VN) — A Tour de France can be won and lost at any point in the 21 stages. That’s a fact that Andy and Fränk Schleck and their head sport director Kim Andersen seem to have lost sight of. That was certainly the case on Tuesday’s stage 16.

Foolishly, in the Leopard-Trek rest day press conference on Monday, Andy Schleck said that he was afraid of the stage’s final descent into Gap. He had good reason because this 5km downhill that drops 1,600 vertical feet (500 meters) from the village of La Rochette on an exceptionally narrow back road is the same one where in the 2003 Tour de France Basque rider Joseba Beloki high-sided on a sharp right turn and slammed into the pavement, breaking multiple bones in his leg, arm and shoulder.

2003 Tour de France. Beloki's crash on La Rochette
Beloki's 2003 crash came in conditions very different from Tuesday's. Photo: Graham Watson

Eight years ago, the road was overheated by the sun, melting the tar where Beloki fell — and forcing Lance Armstrong to overshoot the corner and cyclocross his way down a steep and bumpy meadow to survival. On Tuesday, the road was slick because of a wind-driven rain that hit the race in the last 50km of a viciously fast stage (almost 49 kph for the opening two hours).

By the time the Schleck brothers reached La Rochette, they were in a bad position, 20 seconds behind their biggest rivals, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez, who’d sped clear under Contador’s impetus up the steep, 10-percent pitches of the Col Bayard before consolidating their gains on the easier grades of the Col de Manse.

BMC Racing teammates Marcus Burghardt and George Hincapie led the peloton into the base of the Bayard climb to make sure that Evans was well positioned for any attacks by his opponents. But the Leopard team was surprised by their chief rivals.

When asked if he was expecting Contador’s repeated surges, Fränk Schleck said, “No, not at all.”

Also taken aback by the attacks on the last climb was race leader Thomas Voeckler of Europcar, who said, “I was surprised. I thought there would be accelerations over the top to get placed for the descent. My legs felt good but not good enough to follow Contador and Evans. Today I saw my limits. It was not a good day for me.”

Also not having a great day was Andy Schleck, who said, “I didn’t feel super on the climb when (Contador) attacked.” But it was on the descent to the finish that the Schlecks came undone. “I rode badly downhill,” Andy conceded. “I had to unclip on the first corner and I was gapped 150 meters.”

2011 Tour de France, stage 17
Frank Schleck finished ahead of his younger brother, but still lost time to Evans and Contador. Photo: Graham Watson |

The younger Schleck couldn’t close that gap on the group he’d been with over the Manse summit, and by the finish in Gap he had conceded 15 seconds to Ivan Basso, 48 seconds to his brother and Voeckler, 1:06 to Contador and Sanchez, and 1:09 to a belligerent Evans.

“I’m pretty disappointed, but if this is what people want to see, a race decided on a downhill,” Andy Schleck said. “I don’t think that. A finish like this should not be allowed.”

Leopard team boss Brian Nygaard did not criticize the course in admitting, “It was not a good day for us. It was very, very difficult racing conditions; the gap wasn’t immense on top of the climb, but Evans saw his chance and took it. They took some risks on that descent and it really paid off.”

What was clear was that up the steeper parts of the last climb and down the highly technical descent the Schlecks did not have what it takes to win this Tour. They may have a strong team but they aren’t prepared to take chances like Evans and Contador. And this is a Tour de France where taking tactical risks is just as important, or perhaps more important, than being the best climber or the fastest time trialist.

The Leopard team tried to put a brave face on their losses Tuesday. “It was not a devastating gap,” Nygaard said. “and we’re still going into the Alps feeling as if there’s still a lot for us to do there.”

Andy Schleck was also optimistic. “I am confident and my form is good,” he said. “I showed it (already) and I will show it again.”

Top 15 GC

  • 1. Thomas Voeckler, Team Europcar, in 69h 00′ 56″
  • 2. Cadel Evans, BMC Racing Team, at 01:45
  • 3. Frank Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 01:49
  • 4. Andy Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 03:03
  • 5. Samuel Sanchez, Euskaltel – Euskadi, at 03:26
  • 6. Alberto Contador, Saxo Bank Sungard, at 03:42
  • 7. Ivan Basso, Liquigas-Cannondale, at 03:49
  • 8. Damiano Cunego, Lampre – Isd, at 04:01
  • 9. Tom Danielson, Team Garmin – Cervelo, at 06:04
  • 10. Rigoberto Uran, Sky Procycling, at 07:55
  • 11. Jean-Christophe Peraud, Ag2r La Mondiale, at 08:20
  • 12. Kevin De Weert, Quick Step Cycling Team, at 09:00
  • 13. Rein Taaramae, Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne, at 09:02
  • 14. Pierre Rolland, Team Europcar, at 09:53
  • 15. Peter Velits, HTC-Highroad, at 10:01

Older brother Fränk added, “We have our plan (to win the Tour) and we will continue with that plan. It’s going to be a great last week.”

It’s true that the Schlecks will be better on the longer climbs of the Alps, especially when the road tops 2,000 meters in altitude, as in the stages coming up on Thursday and Friday to the Col du Galibier and L’Alpe d’Huez. But next up is another unpredictable stage to Pinerolo in Italy, which closes with a much steeper climb up to Pramartino, which has a more wicked downhill than the one to Gap on Tuesday. (Related: Stage 17 description)

If the Schlecks again fail to take risks, their time gaps on Evans could grow much larger than their respective four seconds (to Fränk) and 1:18 (to Andy), while Contador is lurking just 39 seconds behind the younger Schleck.

They also have to be wary of Euskaltel’s Sanchez, who has had superb form this past week and has moved up to fifth overall, only seconds behind the two Schlecks.

The older Schleck was right when he said this will be a great last week, but the way things are going, the yellow jersey looks more distant for him and his brother than at any point in this Tour.