Tour analysis: Schleck goes long

>>>Stage 18 report: Pinerolo – Serre Chevalier, Galibier.

Andy Schleck’s attack on the Col d’Izoard today was one of the rare occasions we have seen a Tour contender attack before the race has reached the final climb.

Spectators are not the only ones accustomed to waiting for the last kilometres of a mountain stage for the action to start, the riders are too.

But Schleck’s move showed that it’s not a suicide mission to go from such a long way out – it may yet win him the race. So why have riders become so programmed to leaving their attack until the last minute?

It was a tactic that worked perfectly for Lance Armstrong, and as he used it to such devastating effect for seven years riders became programmed in to thinking that was the way to win the Tour.

But that’s not all. Just as important was the fact that over the years Armstrong’s rivals gave up attacking him from a long way out as his team was riding at a different level to everyone else.

The American would put eight men on the front who could ride anyone down. Day in day out.

Times have now changed and no team is able to control the race for ten straight days in the mountains. In fact we will probably never see such riding again.

So when Schleck attacked on the Izoard with 60km to go the key to his success was how everyone else worked together. The answer today, was, not very well.

Thomas Voeckler, Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez and Alberto Contador all had team mates with them, but none of them were willing to commit them to the chase. Maybe they didn’t think their team mates were strong enough, or maybe they knew they weren’t strong enough themselves.

As they continued to ride tempo Andy’s lead gradually went out. Schleck’s move, as brave and impressive as it was, wasn’t the most powerful, but he capitalised brilliantly on three things: the element of surprise, a lack of one strong team, and a lack of cohesion.

The standoff continued all the way up the gradual lower slopes of the Lautaret. Nicki Sorensen (Saxo Bank) hit the front for a little while as did Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas), but neither stayed there for long.

What also worked so well for Schleck was everyone’s belief that Cadel Evans is the main threat with Saturday’s 42km time trial still to come. No one wanted to help him get Schleck back, and so Evans was left on the front from 12km out.

The Australian slogged away in to the head wind and everyone watching was expecting his rivals to attack him higher up the Galibier. But rather than getting swamped by everyone who’d just got a free ride he managed to ride most of his rivals off his wheel. By the time they hit the line only Frank Schleck, Ivan Basso, and Voecker had stayed with him.

Evans’ ride was the second most impressive of the day. And confirmed the fact that he remains the favourite to win this year’s Tour de France.

>> Struggling to get out to the shops. Buy the latest issue of Cycling Weekly here, or try 6 issues for just £6 <<

Tour de France 2011: Related links

Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index

Halfords banner animated