The Col de la Madeleine has spoken. And now the Tour de France is a two-horse race. Andy Schleck versus Alberto Contador.
But that doesn’t begin to tell the story of a most absorbing day of racing in the Alps. For a half-hour spell as the gradient of the Madeleine began to bite, the race was turned upside down.
The headlines then – Sandy Casar of Française des Jeux won the stage, Cadel Evans cracked and almost came to a standstill on the Madeleine, eventually losing eight minutes and the yellow jersey to Andy Schleck. And Bradley Wiggins’s hopes of finishing in the top ten overall are hanging by a thread after he lost almost five minutes.
A day of aggression and attrition confirmed what many already accepted – that Schleck and Contador are the best two climbers in the race. Just 41 seconds separates them overall and the man from Luxembourg will know he has to treble or even quadruple that advantage in the Pyrenees if he is to hold off Contador in the final time trial.
The lack of a summit finish maybe lulled some observers into thinking it would be a straightforward stage. But this was a very difficult stage and the Madeleine is about as tough as it comes in the Alps.
The early break of 12 riders included three from Caisse d’Epargne – Luis Leon Sanchez, Jose Ivan Gutierrez and Christophe Moreau – plus Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Anthony Charteau and Cyril Gautier (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), Johannes Frohlinger (Milram), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r) and Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank).
Caisse d’Epargne played a strong hand, hoping to lift Sanchez into the top ten overall, while Saxo Bank played a longer game, putting Voigt in the break in the hope he might be some help to Schleck later in the stage.
The lead peaked at around seven minutes, as they reached the foot of the Madeleine, which gave them a fighting chance of getting over the summit with enough of a lead to defend on the descent.
Behind them, the race exploded. The first casualty was Michael Rogers, the Australian riding for the HTC-Columbia team. He was in trouble early on the Madeleine.
Saxo Bank’s Chris Anker Sorensen and Astana’s Paolo Tiranlongo and Daniel Navarro took it in turns to set the pace and they whittled the lead group down.
Evans was in trouble with more than eight kilometres of the climb to go. He slipped to the back of the group, then the gap opened slightly, then it blew wide as he almost came to a standstill.
Up front, the lead group slimmed down until only four remained. Luis Leon Sanchez, who knew he was in with a chance of climbing into the top ten, was set up brilliantly by his team-mates Gutierrez and Moreau. He was left with Anthony Charteau, Sandy Casar – who had slipped off the back but fought his way up to the leaders – and Damiano Cunego.
In the main group, Navarro drove the pace so fiercely that he dragged Schleck and Contador with him. That was enough to decide the day.
Schleck and Contador were left together and, briefly, they toyed with each other to see who would take up the pace. After a while, sensing they could make significant gains over the other favourites, they started to co-operate. Towards the summit, they caught Voigt, who dug deep to give Schleck one last turn. Somewhere between them and the next group was Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez. And behind it was chaos, with small groups everywhere. The only certainty was that everyone was losing time to the big two – the question was how much?
For Evans, the answer was not a good one. He was more than nine minutes down over the top of the Madeleine, his Tour chances over.
On the way down, the leading four began to mess about. Fearful of Sanchez’s sprint, the other three were reluctant to keep driving the pace.
Schleck and Contador caught Moreau and began to close the gap.
In the final 600 metres, they caught the leaders so seven riders fought out the finish. With the final turn coming so close to the line, Sandy Casar pulled of the sprint, holding off Sanchez, who jumped to eighth overall.
And then the clock began ticking. Those who could count themselves satisfied included Samuel Sanchez (50 seconds down on Schleck and Contador), Joaquin Rodriguez, Levi Leipheimer and Robert Gesink (2-05 down), Denis Menchov (2-08 down).
Ivan Basso lost 2-48, as did Jurgen Van den Broeck, but for the rest the clock did not look pretty.
Tomorrow’s 10th stage is a medium mountain stage from Chambery to Gap. It’s Bastille Day. The French already have three stage wins – will they make it four on their national holiday?
Stage 9: Morzine-Avoriaz – Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne
1. Sandy Casar (Fra) Française des Jeux 204.5km in 5-38-10
2. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne
3. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Farnese both same time
4. Christophe Moreau (Fra) Caisse d’Epargne at 2sec
5. Anthony Charteau (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom
6. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana
7. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank all same time
8. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 52sec
9. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 2-07
10. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Radioshack same time
11. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 2-07
13. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 2-10
15. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 2-50
17. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma at 2-50
18. Lance Armstrong (USA) Radioshack at 2-50
19. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 3-48
20. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana at 3-48
23. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Transitions at 4-55
27. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervélo at 4-55
30. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 4-55
32. Michael Rogers (Aus) HTC-Columbia at 4-55
42. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 8-09
1. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank in 43-35-41
2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 41sec
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 2-45
4. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 2-58
5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma at 3-31
6. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Radioshack at 3-59
7. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 4-22
8. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 4-41
9. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 5-08
10. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 5-09
11. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 5-11
12. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Transitions at 5-42
13. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana at 6-31
14. Michael Rogers (Aus) HTC-Columbia at 7-04
15. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervélo at 7-13
16. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 7-18
17. Nicolas Roche (Ire) Ag2r at 7-44
18. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 7-47
19. Thomas Lovkvist (Swe) Team Sky at 8-03
Points competition Thor Hushovd (Cervélo)
King of the mountains Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
White jersey Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Col de la Colombiere
The escape group early in the stage
Cadel Evans with strapped-up arm
BMC working for Evans
Sandy Casar wins the stage
Cadel Evans struggled on the Col de la Madeleine and lost the race lead
New leader Andy Schleck
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