By Chris Carmichael
When going uphill is what you do best, you have to focus your efforts on building a lead – or making up time – before the Tour de France leaves the mountains. Stage 19 was the final day in the Alps, and it ended with a summit finish on the 21 hallowed switchbacks of l’Alpe d’Huez. Following yesterday’s mammoth adventure with three beyond-category climbs in the second half of a 200-kilometer stage, today’s race was notably short. At just 109.5 kilometers, or 68 miles, there was no time to waste.
The peloton and the yellow jersey contenders got right down to business. But even as the day’s large breakaway formed off the front of the peloton and started up the slopes of the Col du Telegraphe, Alberto Contador attacked from the main peloton. After cracking in the final kilometers of Stage 18, Contador started today’s stage more than four minutes behind Andy Schleck and more than 3 minutes behind Cadel Evans. To have any chance of standing on the podium in Paris, Contador needed to gain time today, and if he couldn’t gain time he wanted the stage win atop l’Alpe d’Huez as a consolation prize.
Contador’s move caught his fellow contenders a bit by surprise because it was so far from the finish line, but he was joined relatively soon by Evans and Andy Schleck, and briefly by Frank Schleck and Thomas Voeckler before both of them dropped off the pace. As the Contador group progressed up the Telegraphe and the Col du Galibier (the opposite side they climbed yesterday), the composition of the group changed as riders got dropped or bridged up, but the major shake-up happened when Evans experienced a mechanical problem with his bike. On major climbs, the team cars are often way behind the riders because the roads are narrow and the officials hold cars back so they can’t influence how the race is unfolding. That means that when you have a mechanical, it can be a big problem. Remember last year when Andy Schleck had trouble with his chain near the summit of a climb. His team car would normally have been able to give him a new bike in seconds, but he had to wait and attempt to fix it himself. He eventually lost 39 seconds to Contador that day, the same time gap by which he lost the Tour to Contador overall.
A similar scenario befell Evans today. He tried adjusting his rear quick-release, finally got help from the team car, and then stopped again to get an entirely new bike. That series of mishaps took him off the back of the Contador group, which continued up the mountain. Now, before anyone starts crying foul about whether Contador and Schleck should have waited for Evans, the mishap occurred early in the stage and there were still a lot of riders in play for the stage win and the overall classification. The fact that Contador and Schleck kept riding made sense, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also extremely lucky for them.
Contador’s attack and Evans’ mishaps set the tone for the stage, which was going to be all about pursuit. As Evans chased up and over the Galibier, Andy Schleck sat in an enviable position. Since Contador was the one with the most to gain from the breakaway, it was mostly up to him to drive the pace. Andy Schleck was motivated to contribute because distancing Thomas Voeckler would give him the yellow jeryse, and distancing Evans would give him a greater chance of holding on to it through tomorrow’s time trial.
The 46-kilometer descend from the Galibier to the town of Le Bourg d’Oisans effectively cancelled out all the efforts to separate Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, Cadel Evans, Thomas Voeckler, and Alberto Contador. By the time the peloton swung on to the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, the top 10 riders in the overall classification were all present and accounted for. But that doesn’t mean they were on equal footing. Voeckler had been clearly dropped on the Galibier and was soon dropped again, despite tremendous courage. Andy Schleck was an unkown quantity because no one knew how well he’d recovered from him tremendous 60-kilometer breakaway yesterday. Similarly, Cadel Evans had not only led the chase yesterday on the drag to the summit of the Galibier, but he’d also been forced to chase hard on the Galibier again today, and on the descent to the base of l’Alpe d’Huez. How much did he have left in the tank? And what about Contador? He started the aggression today, but did he have the power to finish it off?
When Contador powered off the front of the peloton on the lower slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, the Schlecks and Evans were wise to let him go and keep tabs on each other. The critical damage was done to Contador yesterday, and as long as they prevented him from gaining too much time he would not be a threat for the overall victory. The real threats were the riders right next to them. And once Voeckler was dropped and losing time in big chunks, Andy Schleck knew he’d be in yellow at the summit. That put the pressure on Evans, who started the day 57 seconds behind Andy Schleck and four seconds behind Frank Schleck.
Evans opted for patience over aggression, which might draw the ire of race fans but made the most sense in the situation. Attacking the Schlecks too early could backfire badly; they could catch back up, counterattack, and increase their leads. Staying together until the final three kilometers before starting to test each other was smarter because there was less risk of losing major chunks of time if the tactic failed. Of course, if it worked there wasn’t enough road to build a giant lead, either. In the end, Evans didn’t have the legs to break either of the Schlecks and they crossed the finish line together, having reduced the gap to Contador to just 34 seconds. And just ahead of Contador and Sammy Sanchez, Pierre Rolland snagged the biggest victory of his career – and the first stage win for the French in this year’s Tour – by attacking the Spaniards in the final 2 kilometers.
Stage 19 sets up an interesting situation for the Tour’s final – and only – individual time trial tomorrow. It’s well known that Cadel Evans is a stronger time trial rider than either Schleck brother, but making up 57 seconds in just 42 kilometers is not an easy feat. Evans has to take 1.34 seconds out of Andy Schleck every kilometer to draw even with him on time; he has to go a fraction of a second faster than that to win.
Looking back over previous Tour de France matchups between Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans, it’s clear that Evans has a chance of winning the Tour de France tomorrow, but it’s by no means a sure thing. You can’t really compare their time trial performances from Stage 19 time trial of the 2010 Tour de France because Andy Schleck was racing for the yellow jersey and Cadel Evans was way out of contention due to a broken elbow. Looking back a year earlier, Evans beat Andy Schleck by 30 seconds in a 40.5 kilometer time trial in the Tour’s final week, but again Evans was way out of contention for victory that year and eventually finished 45 minutes behind Contador in Paris. To find a final Tour de France time trial that pitted Andy Schleck against Cadel Evans when both men were in contention for victory, you have to go back to 2008. In that year, Evans won by 1:02 over Andy Schleck in the first individual time trial, and Evans won by 1:57 over Andy Schleck in the final time trial. The trouble with the 2008 Tour de France is that it was Andy Schleck’s first Tour and he was very young. He’s become a much better time trial rider in the years since.
So, can Cadel Evans win the Tour de France tomorrow or will Andy Schleck realize his dream of winning the Tour? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It is physically possible for Evans to take 57 seconds out of Andy Schleck in 42.5 kilometers, and if he accomplishes that he’ll almost certainly take 4 seconds out of Frank Schleck in the process.
But the course for tomorrow’s time trial might play in the favor of Andy Schleck, not because he’ll be that much faster up the hills on the course, but because the downhill sections of the course may make it difficult for Evans to go fast enough to gain enough time. Air resistance increases as the cube of your speed, meaning that the faster you go, the harder it becomes to go even faster. On flat ground in a time trial, Cadel Evans’ power and position on the bike enable him to go faster than Andy Schleck. But when Schleck is going downhill at 60kmh or faster, Evans may not have the power to go even quicker.
We have an indication of how fast the leaders may ride tomorrow, because the identical course was used in the Criterium du Dauphine in June. The Schlecks weren’t in that race, but Evans finished in 56:47 (44.91 kph or 27.9 mph) for sixth place. It’s difficult to say how that will compare with tomorrow’s performance because the Dauphine was before the Tour, so his fitness may have been a bit lower than at the beginning of the Tour de France. That might indicate he could go faster tomorrow, but you also have to remember that the Dauphine time trial was only a few days into a 10-day race, while tomorrow he’ll be riding with nearly three weeks of hard racing in his legs. All the same, he’s racing for the yellow jersey, and he knows what it’s like to miss it by seconds. In 2007 he lost to Alberto Contador by 23 seconds after starting the final time trial 1:50 behind the Spaniard.
I think Evans will beat Schleck in the time trial tomorrow, but I don’t know if he has the strength left to take more than 57 seconds out of a very motivated Andy Schleck when the Leopard-Trek rider has the yellow jersey on his back and the benefit of time splits in his ear. But whoever ends up wearing the yellow jersey, I have a sneaking suspicion that Greg LeMond’s record for the smallest margin of victory (8 seconds over Laurent Fignon in 1989) might not survive tomorrow’s time trial.
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.