By Chris Carmichael
Fortune favors the bold, and Stage 18 of the Tour de France was the perfect setting for bold moves. At 200 kilometers in length, featuring three “beyond category” climbs, and finishing at the high-altitude summit of the Col du Galibier (8678 feet above sea level), there was no doubt that Stage 18 was going to be extremely difficult. Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck seized the opportunities offered by this stage and set out on a daring breakaway in an attempt to break Thomas Voeckler’s unlikely – but unyielding – grip on the yellow jersey.
Andy Schleck’s tactics today were risky, but when he and his team reviewed the action from the previous mountain stages in the 2011 Tour de France they must have realized that to continue with the tactics they’ve been using was unlikely to yield the desired result. Through the Pyrenees and the last two stages in the Alps, the Leopard-Trek team has driven the pace at the base of the major climb(s) of the day in order to set up a series of attacks from both Frank and Andy Schleck. But almost every acceleration has been answered right away, and on more than one occasion the end result put the Schleck brothers on the defensive instead of off the front.
The yellow jersey contenders’ group is very well matched this year, and it’s a relatively large group (the elite group in the mountains has consistently been at least 10 men). This means that there has always been someone able to respond to the sharp accelerations from the Schlecks. In order to break the blockade and put serious time between himself and his pursuers, Andy Schleck had to shift tactics.
The strategy of choice today has been used before, but rarely with such effectiveness. Leopard-Trek managed to get two riders into the day’s long breakaway. With Maxime Monfort and Joost Posthuma up the road, and the duo of Jens Voigt and Stuart O’Grady in the main peloton, Andy Schleck was using his teammates as chess pieces. On the second of three major climbs, the massive 23-kilometer ascent of the Col d’Izoard, Voigt and O’Grady went to the front of the main field to drive the pace. Even though they didn’t split any of the yellow jersey contenders off the back of the group, they increased the pace to the point that everyone was feeling the pressure.
Unlike the times when Andy Schleck attacked on the final climbs of previous stages, no one responded when the Leopard-Trek rider surged off the front on the Col d’Izoard. He was more than 60 kilometers from the finish line, and there was the remainder of the Izoard – as well as the 23-kilometer climb to the summit of the Col du Galibier – left to ride. That was the boldness and the risk of his attack. His opponents had to think about whether it was too early to commit to such an aggressive move. If they responded and initiated a series of attacks, they could very well push themselves over the edge and forever lose contact with the contenders’ group. But if no one followed, Andy Schleck could take the yellow jersey and build a lead too large to recoup before Paris.
Ahead of Andy Schleck, Joost Posthuma was still climbing the Col d’Izoard. I don’t know if he purposely sat up and waited for Andy or if he had been unable to stay with the breakaway when it split on the climb, but the scenario ended up perfectly for Andy Schleck. He first caught up to Posthuma, who then set off at his maximum to pace his team leader for as long as he could. There is not that much benefit from drafting at the speeds riders maintain on major mountain passes, but if there’s a headwind on the climb you can save some watts by sitting behind another rider. Having a pacer also helps you maintain a fast rhythm; on a long climb riders – even top pros – can gradually lose the impetus to push on at a high power output.
After Posthuma gave everything he had, Andy Schleck continued on up the mountain and hit the summit with about a 4-minute lead over the yellow jersey group. Waiting for him a few turns into the descent was Maxime Monfort. The two blitzed the descent, with Monfort pushing the pace whenever the road straightened out or leveled off. But Monfort’s presence was to become even more important as they swept up a few stragglers from the breakaway and started across the valley and onto the lower slopes of the Col du Galibier. There was a stiff headwind blowing down the valley, and Monfort drove the pace while providing his team leader with a crucial draft.
Once the yellow jersey group reached the base of the final climb, it was clear that no one had the desire – or perhaps the legs – to mount a coordinated chase. But while the group behind was working out the tactics, Schleck had a clear and simple mission: just get to the finish line as fast as possible. There was nothing he could do about the chase behind, he didn’t have to think about attacks and counterattacks; all he could control was how hard he pushed on the pedals. Eventually, it was Cadel Evans who realized that if he wanted to limit Andy Schleck’s time gains he was going to have to do it himself.
Evans went to the front of the yellow jersey group and set a fast tempo. He didn’t launch a sharp attack, perhaps because he felt it was too early to dig into power reserves he might need later. Slowly, the pace Evans set on the front of the yellow jersey group started chipping into Schleck’s lead. Considering the duration of Andy Schleck’s efforts off the front of the peloton, it was not surprising that his lead was shrinking on the final climb. That was part of the reason why it was so crucial for him to use Posthuma and Monfort to build as big a lead as possible before he was left all by himself to face the upper slopes of the Galibier.
The further the race progressed up the Galibier, the faster the gap between Schleck and the yellow jersey group shrank, but eventually the cumulative effect of 18 days of racing and more than 30 miles of climbing today took its toll and the yellow jersey group started to splinter. In the high mountains, this race that depends so heavily on teamwork comes down to an every-man-for-himself battle. Over the final four kilometers, Evans took more than a minute out of Andy Schleck’s lead before Frank Schleck jumped away to take eight seconds from the Australian and move ahead of him in the overall standings by four seconds. Further back, Thomas Voeckler fought to his last ounce of energy to salvage 15 seconds of his lead and – incredibly – retain the yellow jersey.
The biggest lesson from Stage 18 is that bike racing requires audacity and patience, two emotions that inevitably lead to conflict. You have to have the audacity to attack, whether that’s a short acceleration in the final kilometer or a daring raid over two mountain passes. But you also need the patience to wait for the right moment and set up the scenario that’s going to give you the best chance for success. Today’s tactics from Leopard-Trek developed over a period of hours, not impulsively over a few minutes or seconds. Similarly, when Cadel Evans reached the base of the Col du Galibier with a 4-minute gap to close on Andy Schleck, he had to exercise patience. The climb was 23 kilometers long, and going ballistic at the bottom might have cut into the deficit very quickly at first, but cost him so much energy that he couldn’t finish it off well at the top. Whether you’re off the front, leading the chase, or hanging on for dear life at the back of the group, you can’t panic and hit the afterburners on a major climb. If you dig too deep in an effort to make up seconds, you are likely to lose minutes.
It’s obvious that Andy Schleck and Thomas Voeckler were the biggest winners of the day; Andy Vaulted into second place overall (57 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans) and Voeckler again rode spectacularly to retain the yellow jersey when everyone thought he’d lose it. For his part, Cadel Evans took the responsibility of leading the chase on the Galibier and rode well to limit his losses to Andy Schleck. Evans is likely to take time out of both Frank and Andy Schleck in Saturday’s time trial, but you never want to bank on your ability to regain time on a later stage if you don’t have to. With the time gaps as they stand now, Evans could most likely overtake everyone sitting above him in the overall standings and grab the yellow jersey on Saturday, but he has to be careful not to let Andy or Frank Schleck gain more time tomorrow on the finish to l’Alpe d’Huez.
The men who really lost out on Stage 18 were Alberto Contador and Sammy Sanchez. The Spanish duo made a daring blitz down the Cote de Pra Martino yesterday, but had no answer today for the pace set on the Col du Galibier. Sanchez was the first to crack, and Contador looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable for quite a while before finally succumbing to the high pace. By the summit, Contador lost 1:35 to Evans, 1:42 to Frank Schleck, and 3:50 to Andy Schleck. Overall, he’s now more than four minutes behind the Schlecks and more than three minutes behind Evans. If he was on superb form he might have a chance to take back that kind of time with a combination of great performance on l’Alpe d’Huez and the final time trial, but with the form he has right now it appears that today’s stage put him out of contention for the yellow jersey – and probably out of contention for a podium finish in Paris as well.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, orwww.trainright.com.