By Chris Carmichael
There was little doubt that Cadel Evans would ride a faster time trial than Andy Schleck in Stage 20 of the 2011 Tour de France. The big question of the day was whether the Australian could ride fast enough to take back at least 1.34 seconds per kilometer over today’s 42.5-kilometer course in order to finish a hair faster than 57 seconds ahead of Andy Schleck and take the yellow jersey? The answer was an emphatic and resounding YES.
I’m surprised by the result of today’s time trial, not because Cadel Evans rode faster than Andy and Frank Schleck, but because he rode so much faster that the brothers! In the first 15 kilometers of the 42.5-kilometer test, Andy Schleck lost his entire 36 seconds of his 57-second lead over Evans. Somewhere between the first and second time checks the Luxembourger lost the yellow jersey completely, less than 24 hours after he had finally wrested from Thomas Voeckler on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez. I had been anticipating that we might see the closest Tour de France winning margin in history, even closer than Greg Lemond’s 8-second win over Laurent Fignon in 1989. But by the time Cadel Evans rocketed through the final corner and up the finishing straight, he had taken 2:31 out of Andy Schleck in just over 26 miles and will become the first Australian Tour de France Champion by a winning margin of 1:34.
How and/or why did Cadel Evans go so much faster than Andy Schleck in the time trial when the two were so evenly matched on almost every other stage of the 2011 Tour de France? The difference today came down a variety of factors:
Andy Schleck is a very good all-around cyclist, but he excels in climbing mountains. The individual time trial has always been an Achilles’ Heel for the Schleck brothers, but up until today’s time trial it appeared that over a period of years they were beginning to correct that weakness. It’s not uncommon for talented climbers to gradually become better time trial riders. Keep in mind, Alberto Contador was not a good individual time trial rider early in his career, but he won the final individual time trial last year – over 4-time World Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara no less – on his way to his third Tour de France victory.
For his part, Cadel Evans has always been known as a talented time trial rider and a good climber who is just not as explosive as some of his rivals. Evans’ Achilles’ Heel hasn’t really had anything to do with his power on the bike, but rather it’s been his string of bad luck, including a crash in the yellow jersey that left him with a broken elbow. A few years ago, in Andy Shleck’s first Tour de France in 2007, Evans was racing to try and take the yellow jersey off Alberto Contador’s back in the final time trial. Though he fell 23 seconds short of winning the yellow jersey, he took 1:57 out of Andy Schleck that day. Both men are four years older and more experienced now, and until today it appeared that Andy Schleck had closed a significant portion of the talent gap to Cadel Evans.
Skill and Confidence
Watching both Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans ride Stage 20, it was sometimes difficult to register the fact they were riding the same course. Where Cadel was flying through corners, Andy was creeping through them. Cadel was vaulting the speed bumps in order to avoid losing momentum and Andy was getting bucked by them. It is one thing to be at a disadvantage in terms of power output or the time-trialist’s mentality; but Andy Schleck also lost time by riding without the confidence or skill to take the fastest lines through the corners.
The obvious part of riding a successful time trial is having the power to get up to a high speed. But another crucial component is doing everything possible to avoid slowing down. It takes a tremendous amount of work to ride at nearly 28.5 mph (45.8kph) for more than 55 minutes, and it takes even more work when you have to dig deep to accelerate from 15-20mph in the corners to 30-40+ in the straightaways. Once you have speed, you want to keep it by taking aggressive lines through the turns, optimizing your aero position when you’re riding downhill and then modifying it to allow for more power production when you’re riding uphill. Cadel Evans did a much better job of maintaining his speed, whereas even if Andy Schleck had had the power to stay closer to Evans on the straightaways, he gave up a ton of time with the timid manner in which he rode the course.
Even before the Tour de France, Andy Schleck knew he needed to start Stage 20 with a significant lead over Cadel Evans (and Alberto Contador, who was then the pre-race favorite) if he was going to have a chance to win the 2011 Tour. If he started even one second behind either one, his chances of riding into Paris in yellow fell to almost zero percent.
Alberto Contador was pretty much out of contention after the first week of the race. Crashes and knee pain aside, I think it was fatigue from racing – and winning – the Giro d’Italia that was at the core of his troubles. A rested and confident Contador would have ridden differently in the first week – more like Cadel Evans did – and may have been able to avoid some of the crashes. And then in the mountains, Contador was good but not great. He didn’t have the form to attack, but the attacks from his rivals only cracked him twice (once in the Pyrenees and once in the Alps), and even then it was only in the final 1-3 kilometers of major summit finishes.
With Contador struggling, this was Andy Schleck’s best opportunity to win the Tour de France, but to do it he still needed to distance Cadel Evans. Sharp attacks in the Pyrenees didn’t work; Evans responded immediately and the group of yellow jersey contenders was so large that even when Evans didn’t respond, someone else (like Ivan Basso or Sammy Sanchez) was there to take up the chase. So Leopard-Trek shifted tactics in the Alps and Andy swung for the fences with a daring 60-kilometer attack on Stage 18. At one point his lead over Evans reached 4 minutes, but by the top of the Col du Galibier, the diesel engine steadiness of Cadel Evans’ climbing syle reduced that gap to 2:15 and capped Andy’s time advantage in the overall standings to 57 seconds.
When Alberto Contador went on the offensive yesterday, Andy Schleck again distanced Evans on the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier, but despite working hard on those climbs, the front end of the race came back together on the 50-kilometer descent to the base of l’Alpe d’Huez. On the fabled switchbacks of l’Alpe d’Huez, the Schleck brothers didn’t have the power left in their legs to drop Evans and gain more time before today’s time trial.
Tactically, the Schleck brothers raced to their strengths. They did everything they could to gain time in the mountains, at the expense of tremendous amount of energy. Andy Schleck gambled that he could take so much time on Stage 18 that he could survive the onslaught from Evans in the time trial. To ride otherwise – race more conservatively in the mountains to conserve energy for the time trial – probably would not have changed today’s time gaps very significantly and he still would have lost the Tour. And to his credit Evans also rode to his strengths to prevent Andy Schleck from building an insurmountable lead.
Rather than bury himself to stay with riders who can both accelerate sharply and maintain a high pace on big mountain passes, Evans relied on his steadiness to stay within his limits throughout the mountains. Where Andy Schleck left everything on the roads in the mountains, Evans rode more conservatively in order to save a little something for the time trial.
The first week of the Tour de France was chaos, and the series of crashes absolutely changed the face of the race. But since the start of the second week, the main yellow jersey contenders of the 2011 Tour de France have made very few mistakes, and with the benefit of hindsight I don’t think Alberto Contador had the form to win the Tour de France this year even if he hadn’t crashed four times in the first week. At times each initiated the tactics they believed would increase their chances of victory, and each was also forced at times to change his strategy based on circumstances or the tactics of others.
The Tour de France is always won by the strongest rider in the race. That’s the primary consequence of making the race three weeks long. Over the course of 21 days of racing, everything adds up. There’s enough time that the law of averages tends to distribute misfortune and bad days pretty evenly, but there’s also enough time to overcome misfortune. There’s enough time and variety for every man to have his chance to seal victory, but there’s also so much time that you may eventually have to pay for your earlier efforts. This year the strongest rider in the race is Cadel Evans, who won not because others collapsed and failed, but because at his best – and at his team’s best – he was stronger than Andy Schleck at his best.
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, or www.trainright.com.