Andy Schleck outwitted and outrode his rivals with an incredible long-range attack to win atop the Col du Galibier.
Words by Lionel Birnie
Thursday July 21, 2011
All the criticism directed at the Schlecks during this Tour had been justified but today the balance must be redressed. Andy Schleck launched an audacious attack 60 kilometres from the finish, just as the Col d’Izoard really began to bite. All the jibes about Leopard’s inability to live up to the True Racing slogan the marketing executives have lumbered them with must fall silent.
It was extraordinarily bold as well as cleverly executed. Going into Friday’s 19th stage, the brothers are in a strong position but they still have work to do. Andy Schleck is just 15 seconds behind Thomas Voeckler overall, and 57 ahead of Cadel Evans. Frank Schleck, who enjoyed a stress-free ride up the Col du Galibier, counter-attacked near the finish to take second on the stage and claw back a sliver of time.
Andy Schleck issued a challenge to the rest of the overall contenders and other than Evans they were unwilling, or more likely unable, to respond. Alberto Contador cracked with 2.5 kilometres to go and conceded more than a minute-and-a-half. Game over for him.
Voeckler rode brilliantly to keep the yellow jersey yet again. The Frenchman is hanging on with all the determination of a small child trying to prevent a gang of bigger boys from stealing his favourite toy. Day after day they attempt to loosen his grip. They bash his knuckles and try to prise his fingers open but he will not let go. Tomorrow, on Alpe d’Huez, he may finally be too exhausted to cling on any longer, although we have been saying that since the day before Luz-Ardiden.
The third hero of the day was Evans. The Australian had no choice but to chase on his own when the time gap grew to almost four and a half minutes on the Col du Lauteret. While he may have counted on some help from someone – Ivan Basso or his Liquigas team-mate Sylvester Szmyd, perhaps – there was virtually no assistance. Instead he went to the front and rode his own private, agonising pursuit race.
Although Voeckler stood to lose the yellow jersey, the onus did not fall on him. He had a Europcar team-mate, the indefatigable Pierre Rolland, with him yet it was still not his responsibility to work. For a start, Evans is the better time triallist and so Voeckler had to race smartly to see if he could exploit any weakness. Voeckler would have counted on the possibility of Evans cracking before the top but he did not. Evans will never win a beauty contest for his style of riding but it was impossible not to admire the dogged, determined way he chased.
The Tour had been building towards this point. An epic route took them over the Col Agnel, which peaked at 2,744 metres, then across some of the steepest sections of the Col d’Izoard and on up the cruel combination of the Col du Lautaret and Col du Galibier. At 2,645 metres, it was the highest stage finish in the Tour’s history.
Tomorrow has the potential to be even worse. Stage 18 tackled the Galibier by the so-called ‘easy’ side. Tomorrow they cross it the other way. A short stage of just 109 kilometres, which culminates at Alpe d’Huez, could be faster and more explosive.
We knew someone had to do something but recent days suggested that Contador and Samuel Sanchez might combine again. Early in the stage, Contador visited the race doctor’s car, apparently for treatement on his knee. On the Col Agnel he did not look good and rode further down the group than would have been expected.
When a 19-man break got clear after 40 kilometres, there was the first hint that Leopard may have decided to vary their tactics. Their attempts to show their strength by setting a fast pace on the early mountains had not really paid off. This time they put Maxime Montfort and Joost Posthuma in the escape, the equivalent of sending an advance party ahead to check on the lie of the land.
The lead group split into two on the Agnel, which was very steep at the top. Robert Gesink, Remy Di Gregorio, Andriy Zeits, Levi Leipheimer, Arnold Jeannesson, David Moncoutié and Lieuwe Westra, tried to get away from the main group too. In the valley, before the Izoard, Philippe Gilbert, the king of the mountains Jelle Vanendert, Kevin De Weert and Voeckler tried to get away. They caught the Gesink group, which was already fading, before being promptly closed down.
Leopard’s Stuart O’Grady then came to the front of the main group and lifted the pace in readiness.
Perhaps the Schlecks have been listening to the criticism of their propensity to look round for each other. It was tempting to suggest that they be fitted with those plastic cones vets put round a dog’s neck after an operation to prevent them licking their stitches.
With 60 kilometres to go Andy Schleck accelerated. Rolland tried to mark him but lost the wheel and rapidly went backwards. There was no hesitation from Schleck. No looking back. This was it. Win or bust. Not something that can often be said of either brother.
Up ahead, Maxim Iglinskiy of Astana was alone at the head of the race. The rest of the breakaway group had shattered and were in the process of being sucked up by Schleck.
Leopard still had Montfort up ahead with Roche. They were second and third on the road. Posthuma, the other Leopard, had dropped back. The plan, surely, was for Schleck to catch him nearer to the top of the Izoard so that the Dutchman could lead him down the descent.
But Schleck caught Posthuma with two kilometres of climbing still to go. Posthuma was little help. He gave Schleck the briefest of respites and could not keep up with him to the top.
Montfort slowed so that Schleck would catch him on the early part of the descent. Schleck almost came a cropper on the first sweeping left-hander, running perilously close to the edge but once he caught Montfort he appeared to grow in confidence, even taking the lead for parts of the descent.
In the main group there was little reaction. Contador put his Saxo Bank worker Daniel Navarro on the front. The gap to Schleck was now a couple of minutes but no one was panicking. There was still such a long way to go.
In the valley road, Montfort, who was riding very well, and Schleck hooked up with Dries Devenyns of Quick Step, Igor Silin of Katusha and Nicolas Roche of AG2R. Iglinskiy was still out in front but tiring rapidly.
Whether Devenyns will find a nice gift or a contract with the Leopard team under his pillow tonight is anyone’s guess, but the Quick Step rider was more than willing to tow Schleck and co into the headwind before the base of the Lautaret. It was a sterling effort and one that enabled the lead to stay around the four-minute mark.
With 18 kilometres of climbing left, Montfort cracked. Schleck now had to ride alone.
He was not the only one left without team support. None of the other favourites had any help either, which meant they had to be meticulous about judging their efforts. It was interesting that they did not collaborate. Perhaps they felt Evans should do it, although it is more likely, given how they fared on the climb, that the likes of Basso, Contador and Sanchez simply didn’t feel strong enough to commit that early.
With 11 kilometres to go, Evans went to the front and set himself up for an all-or nothing effort. Schleck still had four minutes. He had to do something.
Up ahead, Roche was dropped and Schleck was left with just Iglinskiy, who had been caught before they turned onto the Galibier, for company.
Now it was a pure pursuit match. Schleck versus Evans. And just when you thought Evans was going to pop, he managed to haul himself out of the saddle for another few pedal strokes. It was an incredible effort and a real contrast to the smooth pedalling of his rival up the road. Having said that, there was nothing serene about the expression on Schleck’s face.
Sanchez, so impressive in the Pyrenees, was dropped. Then Tom Danielson slipped away, then Contador’s legs stopped responding. Can we remember a day when Contador has been found wanting in the mountains?
At the end it was a test of guts and little else. Those who bemoaned the cautious tactics of the favourites when Schleck first attacked could now see why. Everyone was on the limit. Evans was in agony, so was Voeckler. Basso was snarling like a tiger.
Voeckler said last week that the 2011 version of himself couldn’t have kept up with Armstrong and Basso on Plateau de Beille in 2004. Well, Basso 2011 would be miles behind Basso 2004 too.
That wasn’t the only drama. Rigoberto Uran, the Sky rider who had led the young riders’ classification, crashed on the descent of the Izoard and lost his white jersey to Rein Taaramae.
And Mark Cavendish was in an 88-man group that finished 35-40 down, outside the time limit. The jury decided they could stay in the race, rather than disqualify half the field, but Cavendish and the rest were penalised 20 points towards the green jersey competition. That means his lead over Jose Joaquin Rojas, who made the time cut, is now just 15.
Now the Schlecks must finish the job, because they will surely lose out to Evans in the time trial unless they gain more time. They still have a dilemma. Andy is 57 seconds clear and is the better time trialist. Frank is just four seconds up and would lose time to a bag of cement against the clock.
So they need to be aggressive again on Alpe d’Huez, or preferably before. Andy will be tired from today’s exertions. Frank relatively fresh after a conservative day playing policeman. So what do they do? Send Frank away early and hope he too can gain a couple of minutes? Whatever they decide, perhaps today has shown them that being bold can pay off.