TDF Stage 17

23 Jul

Today was a day of incredible bike racing between the two best riders in the Tour de France this year – Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Alberto Contador (Astana).

Schleck did everything he needed to do today, except take the yellow jersey back from Contador.

Despite attacking, changing his pedaling rhythm, changing speed, Schleck could not shake Contador off his wheel. The fact is, it is even more amazing Contador could not shake Schleck off his.

Last year when Contador attacked in the mountain stages, no one could stay with him. This year was different; Schleck is a much stronger rider than he was last year. If you look at all the mountain stages in this year’s Tour, Schleck has proven he is on equal footing with Contador. One stage Schleck gained 10 seconds on Contador, another mountain stage Contador gained 10 seconds on Schleck.

If you take away the mechanical incident in Stage 15, you have a different race – and perhaps a different outcome. If Schleck had the yellow jersey going into the time trial, it is possible he could eke out a good enough performance to keep it.

In the 2007 Tour de France, Alberto Contador was expected to lose the Tour to Cadel Evans because Evan’s was a superior time-trialest. Contador rode the time trial of his then young career, and hung on to his lead over Evans of 23 seconds to win his first Tour de France.

Contador went into that time trial with the yellow jersey. Something happens to riders when they have the yellow – “they ride like two men” (Phil Liggett) – they just refuse to lose.

Schleck has the climbing skills to challenge Contador for the win in future Tours de France, he just needs the time trialing skills. I believe he will develop them, and expect that he will ride a good time trial on Saturday. Most likely, not good enough to win, unless Contador has a puncture, falls of his bike, or in karmic fashion – his chain slips.

There are no miracles in cycling so his chances of winning are slim- but Schleck has nothing to feel badly about. His team, Saxo Bank, set a tortuous pace that eventually left Contador alone. When Schleck’s last teammate dropped off completely spent, Schleck attacked. Contador glued himself to Schleck’s wheel. They dropped everyone. They picked up the remains of the breakaway – and dropped them too. The only thing they could not shake were the crazy fans.

It was the two of them – mano a mano – for the last 10km of the race. Contador attacked with about 4km left, but Schleck responded quickly and without difficulty.

They rode the last 10km alone, alongside the craziest fans in all of sports, duking it out until the finish, when Contador sat up and Schleck took the win. Presumably, Contador did not challenge, because he did not need the win (no time bonuses) and because Schleck had done the work. Possibly too, because of the chain incident.

It was a good race on the toughest mountain stage of this year’s Tour – and it ended in a draw. It has been years and years since the Tour has seen two riders, the key rivals, so evenly matched. Armstrong and Jan Ullrich were not – Ullrich often was in poor form and had not trained enough to challenge Armstrong at his best.

The clouds, fog and rain added to the dramatic battle between Contador and Schleck. Fortunately, it did not rain heavily so accidents were few.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) put in another very impressive ride today coming in 4th – he is exceeding all expectations. Chris Horner (Team Radio Shack) turned out to be the strongest rider for the team – and the highest place American rider. Who knows what he would have done if the team had ridden for him and not Armstrong or Levi Leipheimer. Great ride today by Horner – the first opportunity this Tour he had to ride for himself. His 8th place finish shows what he was capable of.

There was no change in the top five positions in the general classification – although there were changes in time differences. The race for 3rd place on the podium is still very much up for grabs with just 21 seconds separating current 3rd place rider, Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel – Euskadi) and 4th placed, Denis Menchov (Rabobank).

Stage 18 is a stage for the sprinters, in fact it is a classic sprint stage – much like today’s stage was a classic mountain stage. The sprinters
are eager I’m sure; expect a lot of action tomorrow in spite of all the tired legs and bodies. If you are a betting person, put your money on Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) to win the stage.

I was not disappointed in the way the race unfolded between Schleck and Contador.

 

Schleck did all he could do, he rode a perfect race. Unfortunately for him, so did Contador.

*pictures are from Getty Images

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