Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador proved what we already knew. They are the best two climbers in the Tour de France. By far.
But Schleck could not shake off Contador on the Col du Tourmalet. The two riders rose through the mist together and at the finish line the Spaniard did the decent thing and did not nip past Schleck, who had set the pace for the final 10 kilometres of the climb.
Going into the stage, Contador led Schleck by just eight seconds. Contador still leads by that slim margin, but he will be the big favourite to win his third Tour in the 52-kilometre time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac on Saturday. Contador will be the last man to start, a small but important advantage, and can measure his effort.
Having beaten Schleck by 1-45 at Annecy in a short, hillier time trial during last year’s race, the Astana man should seal the Tour, barring disaster.
It was not a tactically astute performance by Schleck, although that is easy to say in hindsight. The Saxo Bank team set a fierce pace early on the 18-kilometre climb of the west side of the Tourmalet. One by one the riders in dark blue and white took turns and it was obvious Schleck was planning to attack.
Schleck did attack, with 10 kilometres remaining but Contador followed him. With a few hundred metres, the pair were away, leaving the next best riders in the Tour trailing in their wake.
The conundrum for Schleck was that a constant fast pace was not putting Contador into difficulty. Perhaps he needed to vary the tempo and hit Contador with a succession of searing accelerations instead of trying to burn him off his wheel.
The frustration was obvious. Schleck only lost the yellow jersey to Contador because his chain jammed on the Port de Balès on Monday.
With 3.9km to go, having set the pace all the way up the climb, Schleck flicked his elbow, hoping Contador would do a turn.
He did more than that. He jumped away and forced Schleck to close the gap, which he did quite easily.
Towards the top, as the crowd closed in, the opportunity to use the full width of the road to launch an attack was denied to both riders. There were flags and banners and fans in costumes running alongside the riders. It may have looked entertaining but the last five kilometres needed to be flanked with barriers to allow the riders to race.
That wasn’t the only reason there was to be no attack. Contador probably felt he didn’t need to gain time. Schleck could not find one last burst. They had pulled out more than 1-30 on the next group. They had proved their superiority.
Now it is down to the time trial. Perhaps Schleck has played the longest bluff of all. Perhaps his skill against the clock has improved sufficiently to cause a big shock. Perhaps.
It is unlikely. Now Contador will hope to seal the Tour with a stage win, otherwise he will become the first champion since Greg Lemond in 1990 to go the entire race without a stage victory.
For Schleck another second place looks on the cards but he has the consolation of having won two of the toughest mountain stages, at Morzine and on the Tourmalet.
Behind the main two, Denis Menchov did enough to make himself favourite for the third spot on the podium. He lost a few seconds to Samuel Sanchez, who crashed hard early in the stage, but the Russian will be confident going into the time trial.
The biggest loser overall was Radioshack’s Levi Leipheimer, who lost nine minutes and fell out of the top 10 to 13th. That meant Garmin-Transitions’ Ryder Hesjedal moved up to eighth, Roman Kreuziger rose to ninth and Leipheimer’s team-mate Chris Horner hauled himself into the top 10.
Torrential rain overnight made conditions bleak. After a very hot Tour it was cool and damp, with low cloud and mist reducing visibility. Anyone expecting fireworks was to be disappointed. This mountain stage was as formulaic as they come.
Seven riders attacked early on. They were Juan Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky, Kristjan Koren of Liquigas, Alexandr Kolobnev of Katusha, Marcus Burghardt of BMC Racing, Remi Pauriol of Cofidis and Ruben Perez of Euskaltel.
There was a moment of drama when Samuel Sanchez, lying third overall, crashed heavily. Just as he went down, Carlos Sastre of Cervélo was pushing on at the head of the bunch. Alberto Contador tried to persuade Sastre to slow down but the Cervélo man persisted with his attack and went clear with a team-mate, Ignatas Konovalovas.
When Konovalovas dropped back, Sastre was condemned to a long, lone chase that never looked like resulting in anything other than exhaustion.
The stage slipped into a state of slumber. The leaders rode on at a decent tempo. The bunch held the lead at a constant seven minutes. And Sastre got no nearer to bridging the gap.
Sastre was finally caught 25km from the finish, as the bunch approached the bottom of the Tourmalet. By now the leading seven had seen their advantage slashed to 4-30.
As they started the climb, the lead had just plunged below four minutes. And at that moment Sastre paid the price for his efforts and was dropped from the peloton.
On the lower slopes of the climb, Saxo Bank set a fierce pace in the bunch. In the lead, Boasson Hagen gave one last turn on the front of the break, then sat up. Shortly after that Flecha was dropped too. The group splintered and it left Burghardt and Kolobnev out in front.
Kolobnev was passed by Schleck and Contador and the pair went on to contest the stage and sort out the Tour.
Tomorrow’s 18th stage runs from Salies-de-Béarn to Bordeaux. It’ll be pan flat and on paper it should be a sprint but much will depend on whether HTC-Columbia, Cervélo and Lampre want to keep it together. There’s also the possibility of crosswinds.
Stage 17: Pau – Col du Tourmalet
1. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank 174km in 5-03-29
2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana same time
3. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 1-18
4. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Transitions at 1-27
5. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1-32
6. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 1-40
7. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank same time
8. Chris Horner (USA) Radioshack at 1-45
9. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma at 1-48
10. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 2-14
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana in 83-32-39
2. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 8sec
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3-32
4. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 3-53
5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma at 5-27
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 6-41
7. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 7-03
8. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Transitions at 9-18
9. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 10-12
10. Chris Horner (USA) Radioshack at 10-37
Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck shake hands after the finish
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