Andy Schleck played his only card on the Tourmalet and it just wasn’t enough. Contador did everything he needed to do - following, following, following the white jersey all the way up the brutal climb. His only deviation - one little dig to see if he could shake the man in the white loose. Schleck proved he was up to the challenge, Contador dropped back into ‘Position A’ and the two powered towards the finish leaving everyone else in their wake. In the end, Contador chose not to sprint for the finish, gifting Schleck the win - an appropriate reward for having done the lion share of the work.
Barring accident, illness or injury Alberto Contador now has his 3rd Tour de France title in the bag. His 8 second lead likely to blow out to more than a minute at the conclusion of the Stage 19 ITT. Schleck promised much in this Tour and consistently talked up his chances but tactically Saxo Bank had very little in their playbook other than their ‘one mountain, one attack’ strategy from 2008.
Schleck will need a significantly improved time trial and a better plan if he is to seriously threaten Contador. And if he doesn’t, he’s destined to continue to be cast in the role of Raymond Poulidor to Contador’s Jacques Anquetil for years to come.
The equation is pretty simple, really. Andy Schleck needs two minutes over Alberto Contador if he is to have any chance of not just seizing the yellow jersey from the Spaniard, but protecting it through the Stage 19 Time Trial and onwards to Paris. The tactic required is even simpler - attack!
There’s no doubt Schleck has talked a good game throughout the Tour, it’s just a shame he hasn’t let his legs do the talking and raced more aggressively. He’s tagged himself as the best climber in the world and the heir apparent to Contador but his consistently conservative tactics (showboating aside) have been more fizz than fireworks. Instead, Schleck and Saxo Bank are betting everything on one climb - tonight’s ascent of the mighty Tourmalet. No surprise, really, as these are exactly the same tactics Bjarne Riis used successfully on Stage 17 in 2008 when Carlos Sastre launched his bid for victory on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez.
Contador on the other hand has an even simpler proposition - follow Andy Schleck everywhere he goes, everywhere except back to the Saxo Bank team car that is.
We can also expect to see some fireworks from Samuel Sánchez (02:00), Denis Menchov (02:13) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (03:39) who are all racing furiously for the 3rd step on the podium. Sánchez will fancy keeping the other two at bay on a day like today but Menchov has looked increasingly dangerous as the race has worn on, while Van Den Broeck gave a hint the other day that his young legs may be tiring.
The break will get away early with all the KOM contenders hunting for points on the final day in the mountains. Expect to see the lieutenants of the GC big guns in amongst them too - a rider each from Saxo Bank (Fuglsang or Voigt), Lotto (Lloyd), Euskaltel - Euskadi and Rabobank for sure and possibly Vino for Contador. It’s unlikely that they’ll stay away, though - there’s just too much at stake on this, the Queen stage.
My tip: Contador. He’s out to prove a point. Bang, bang Andy. You’re dead.
Fairytale ending for the Brothers Schleck | Stage 17
The 169.5 km Stage 17 five climb brute from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand certainly lived up to its promise, delivering some of the most exciting racing of the Tour so far.
The most likely scenario was for the Stage to develop into a battle of wills (and legs) amongst the three strongest teams of the serious GC contenders.
Team Astana had one plan and one plan only, throw everything at Garmin’s Bradley Wiggins in an effort to make him crack - the last thing they wanted was for the brilliant British time triallist to be with in spitting distance come the ITT the next day. Saxo Bank, down to just seven riders after the loss of Kurt Asle Arvesen on Stage 10 and the indefatigable Jens Voigt in an horrific crash on Stage 16, handed the kitchen sink to Stuey O’Grady with the instructions to throw it as hard and as often as he possibly could before the Brothers Schleck bolted uphill on the penultimate climb of the 8.8-kilometre-long Col de Romme. Garmin Slipstream had one simple task - defend, defend and defend, and try and keep Wiggins close enough in the hunt for him to unleash his brilliant time-trialling skills in the ITT the next day.
In a major surprise early, Thor Hushovd took a leaf out of Franco Pelizotti’s playbook and launched himself up the road in an effort to get over the first two Category 1 climbs and hunt down 6 sprint points, no doubt motivated by Cavendish’s ill tempered remarks the day before. After his initial success he pressed on for another 50 km, up-and-over the category 2 climb and banked another 6 points at Cluses, all but wrapping up the race for the green jersey four days out from Paris.
Back down the road Saxo Bank were on a mission to shred as many riders as they possibly could. Classics hard man, O’Grady was doing a pile of work in preparation for his team mates to launch their all out assault. The first attack came from Sastre but it was short lived. After only a matter of minutes he was reeled in by the fast moving peloton and just as quickly he was spat out the back. The defending champ was gone, Tour over. As the remnants of the early breakaway were being mopped up Frank Schleck attacked and was covered by Armstrong, then Contador and Andy. Then Andy attacked, covered by Contador with Armstrong and Wiggins dropped momentarily but eventualy scrambling back on.
Frank Schleck seemed to be on a good day today, brother Andy not quite so good. But after a brief pause, Andy attacked again, Contador grabbed his wheel then Kloden and then … no one. Three riders away in what looked like the move of the day. Back down the road Frank shook off Armstrong and Wiggins and in a flash was up the road with the leaders. Armstrong sat on the wheel of Wiggins, defending, playing the loyal team mate. Wiggins was measuring his effort and although losing time he didn’t appear to be struggling; and then he had company, team mates Zabriskie and Vand Velde arrived and immediately got to work helping out their man. Terrific, selfless riding from the Garmin boys.
Up ahead, the leading group is on the final climb of the day. There is some discussion between Contador and Kloden and Kloden shakes his head. Then, to everyone’s surprise, including his team director, Contador attacks. The Schlecks set about reeling the surge in but Kloden is gone. Blown up on the final climb by his team mate and in danger of seeing his possible podium spot slip away too. Back down the road, Armstrong is chasing hard, more than two minutes down on the leaders.
Contador and the Schlecks crest and then begin the race down into Le Grand-Bornand. Frank and Andy do all the work, keen on grabbing as much time as possible. Contador sits in making them work and it’s obvious even 10 km out he has no intention of racing for the win. Andy leads out Frank and Frank comes around him for a well deserved win. Victory, time and the tactical battle all won by Saxo Bank. Contador’s final attack has bolstered his lead yet cruelled his team. Looks like more frosty flakes on the breakfast menu at Astana.
Tonight’s brutal Queen Stage of the 2009 Tour is all about Team Astana and their one very clear objective - put Bradley Wiggins under pressure and make him crack if they can. Make no mistake, Astana know just how much of a threat Wiggins is - this year’s Tour revelation - and they don’t fancy him being this close to Contador with the ITT tomorrow. Astana have plenty of respect for Andy Schleck too but he is a known quantity and his time trialling ability will not be considered a significant threat. Wiggins, however, is an unknown quality and no one, including Wiggins himself really knows just what he might be capable of.
With five climbs, including four Category 1 climbs, the 169.5 km Stage 17 from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand is a real brute of a day and Astana will have plenty of opportunities to test the Brit’s mettle, especially over the concluding climb of the day, the revered Col de la Colombière (7.5 km at 8.5 percent).
Pelizotti should be busy again early in the piece - looking to hoover up as many KOM points as he possibly can even though he already has an iron grip on the jersey. He would love to stay away and grab that ever elusive victory but there will be too much pressure on from the big guns for the break to stay away today and I expect a big name to snag the win.
My tip: the old dog, Armstrong. Or maybe a Schleck.