By Neal Rogers
CSC-Saxo Bank’s Carlos Sastre took both the stage win atop L’Alpe d’Huez and the race lead following Wednesday’s massive 210km queen stage of this year’s Tour — but who was the day’s biggest winner?
Following this Tour’s final mountain stage, one minute and 34 seconds separate stage 17 winner Carlos Sastre and pre-race favorite Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto with just four stages remaining. Of greatest interest, of course, is Saturday’s rolling 53km time trial, where the final classification will certainly be determined.
Two riders sit between Sastre and the fourth-placed Evans on the GC — CSC’s Fränk Schleck, who sits 1:24 back, and Gerolsteiner’s Bernhard Kohl, who sits 1:33 back.
Yet given that neither Schleck nor Kohl is known to be a strong time trialist, the battle for the yellow jersey will likely come down to the Sastre and Evans, both of whom have donned the Tour’s maillot jaune for the first time in their careers in the past 10 days.
At the final time trial of the 2007 Tour, Evans finished second on the 55.5km stage, 51 seconds behind stage winner Levi Leipheimer and 2:33 ahead of Sastre.
Two weeks ago, Evans put 1:16 into Sastre at this Tour’s first time trial in Cholet, which at 29.5km was just over half the distance of this Saturday’s race of truth. If both riders maintain the same relative speeds over 53km, Evans will emerge 136 seconds, or 2:16, ahead of Sastre.
Is 1:35 enough?
And assuming that Evans will take only two seconds per kilometer out of Sastre — a conservative assumption to be sure — over 53km that would add up to 106 seconds, or 1:46, giving Evans a 12-second advantage heading into Paris, which would make for the second-closest winning margin in Tour history.
Two stages remain before Saturday’s time trial, starting with Thursday’s stage 18 into Saint-Etienne, which features three categorized climbs including a Cat. 4 climb just 8.5km from the finish line. Yet most Tour analysts predict no change in GC until the final time trial.
Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, who Evans cited as his biggest rival coming into the Tour, now sits 2:39 behind Sastre and 1:05 behind Evans. Menchov’s dream of winning the Tour is all but over; however a podium placing — perhaps even second place — is still within reach.
So who is sitting in the driver’s seat after the Tour’s final mountain stage?
Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel, who is at the Tour doing commentary work with Versus, told VeloNews he believes the advantage goes to Evans.
“I’m a little bit disappointed with Cadel,” Bruyneel said. “I thought he was a little better. He did his job, obviously, at the end, but he couldn’t take any time back. I think with one minute 34 he can still win the Tour, but I wouldn’t feel very safe about it. The last time trial is more the physical fitness than the time trial specialty that makes the difference. Sastre is in good shape, he’s getting better and better, and in my opinion Cadel is not in his top shape. He is always there, but I think last year he was in better shape than now. I think Cadel will still win it. If the logical capacities in the time trial are respected normally, he should be able to take back 1:34. But it still has to be ridden.”
Menchov finished seven seconds behind Evans in Cholet. If both riders maintain the same relative speed over 53km, Evans will emerge 13 seconds ahead of Menchov on Saturday.
Menchov finished 31 seconds ahead of Sastre in Cholet, a pace that could see him take 55 seconds out of the Spaniard over 53km.
Both scenarios see the Russian fall well short of overcoming the relative 2:39 to Sastre and 1:05 to Evans he would need to surpass either on the classification. As for the battle between Evans and Sastre, Menchov said, “One minute 34 for Evans? I ?think it’s possible [he can win], he’s a specialist. But Carlos will be good ?as well I’m sure.”
CSC team manager Bjarne Riis was ecstatic about his team’s performance Wednesday, and was philosophical about Sastre’s chances against Evans in the time trial.
“Maybe it’s enough, maybe not,” Riis said. “But no matter what, we will be very happy and very proud. We did everything we could, and I think that’s fine.”
Sastre downplayed his chances of winning the Tour, saying, “In the time trial, against riders like Evans and Menchov, I don’t think I ?have much of a chance. Right now, I don’t want to think about 1:34. All I want ?to do is recuperate ahead of Saturday.”
However Silence-Lotto team manager Marc Sergeant told VeloNews he sees it as advantage Sastre. “I think the big winner is Sastre. Okay, it’s a long time trial, but in between we have two more difficult stages. We might see more attacking before the time trial, but there are a lot of guys who still want to win stages. It will be very nervous, that’s for sure. And we should never underestimate Menchov.”
Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde finished with the yellow jersey group atop Alpe d’Huez and sits sixth overall, 4:41 behind Sastre. A strong time trial by Vande Velde could see him ride into fourth place overall, wondering what might have been had he not crashed Tusday on the technical 25km descent down the Cime de la Bonette into Jausiers. Vande Velde said Sastre, his former teammate at CSC, should not be counted out.
“Carlos is not a horrible time trialist by any means,” Vande Velde said. “Everyone has this perception that if you’re not top three you’re a bad time trialist. He’s quite good. But 1:30? It’s going to be close.”
As for Evans, he made no predictions. “We’ll see on Saturday,” he said. “This will really become the race of truth.”