Schlecks falter ahead of Tour's final mountain days

Frank Schleck, Tour de France 2011 stage 16

The Schleck brothers, Fränk and Andy took a direct hit today from their rivals on the Tour de France's 16th leg to Gap. The stage was supposed to be an Alpine appetiser, but may prove to be decisive when the race ends in Paris on Sunday.

"I am pretty disappointed," Andy Schleck said after he showered.

"I don't think this is what people want to see, a race decided on a downhill."

Andy and his older brother Fränk, both racing for team Leopard-Trek, seemed to be caught off guard on the Col de Manse. The climb's downhill run became famous in 2003 when Joseba Beloki crashed and Lance Armstrong rode off-road.

Three-time Tour winner and defending champion, Alberto Contador used it today to gain time on his rivals. The Spainard attacked several times on the climb to distance his rivals and finally rode clear with Cadel Evans and Samuel Sánchez.

Rain and cold temperatures made the day and the descent to Gap more dangerous. The Schlecks didn't take risks they may have taken if the roads were dry.

World Champion Thor Hushovd won the stage from an escape at the front of the race. Evans finished 4-23 minutes behind Hushovd and three seconds up on Contador and Sánchez.

Contador, though, put 18 seconds into Fränk and 1-06 minutes into Andy.

"It was a dangerous finish," added Andy Schleck. "I rode badly downhill; I had to unclip on the first corner and was gapped 150 metres. I couldn't just coast to the bottom.

"I don't think it [the time loss - ed.] means anything, I am confident and my form is good. I showed it and I am going to show it again. I will keep my head up for the next few days."

Andy Schleck finished second in the last two editions behind Contador. Last year, he was only 39 seconds off and now leads Contador in the classification by the exact same time.

Fränk said that he thinks everyone was surprised that Contador decided to attack today, two days ahead of the race's big mountain stage to Galibier.

"I don't think it's a tragedy," Fränk explained. "I lost 25 seconds and Andy a little bit more, but that doesn't change any of our plans for the coming days. We have to gain time [on Evans and Contador].

"It's not enough that we stay together, we have to gain time."

Leopard-Trek general manager, Brian Nygaard said that the team would "absolutely" have to be aggressive in the coming Alpine stages.

The 179-kilometre leg to Pinerolo, Italy, tomorrow is supposed to be another appetiser stage since it ends on a downhill. The major Alpine legs are due on Thursday and Friday. The riders face the Agnel, the Izoard and the mountaintop finish to Galibier on Thursday. On Friday, they will climb two categorised climbs before the finish to Alpe d'Huez.

As today proved, though, the Tour de France is unpredictable. Contador is desperate to make up the time he lost in the opening day's crash and unseat race leader, Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (Europcar).

Voeckler leads by 1-45 minutes over Evans and is likely to lose the yellow jersey on Thursday or Friday.

The Tour's contenders

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing)

Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 4"

Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 1'18"

Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 1'41"

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) 1'57"

Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) 2'04"

Tour de France 2011: Related links

Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index

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