Decisive time trial looms for top riders

Published: Saturday, Jul. 23, 2011 - 12:14 am | Page 3C
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 24, 2011 - 12:02 pm

ALPE d'HUEZ, France – After 2,105 miles and nearly three weeks of racing, through three perilously steep climbs into the Alps, the Tour de France will be decided today in a 26-mile sprint through Grenoble. This is like deciding a marathon with a 100-meter dash.

The potentially dramatic situation emerged Friday when, in the final mountain stage of this year's Tour, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg secured the overall leader's yellow jersey, which has long eluded him this late into the competition. Unlike in the previous two Tours, he will not enter the penultimate and decisive stage behind Alberto Contador of Spain.

Brother Frank Schleck is in second, 53 seconds out, but it's Cadel Evans of Australia, 57 seconds out, who is considered the superior time trialist.

One by one, in reverse order of the standings, the riders will set out today in an individual time trial, the ultimate race against the clock. Their teammates will not be around to pull them along, as they dutifully did through ascents in the Pyrenees and the Alps.

The winner after that will sip Champagne on Sunday during the final stage, a ceremonial ride into Paris.

"I couldn't have told a writer to create a better Tour de France," Schleck said. "It's all there – the suspense is perfect."

Such a competitive finish is rare in a race that is usually decided before the last time trial. Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond won that way in 1989, eliminating a deficit similar to the one Evans faces. Floyd Landis also won on a final time trial in 2006, but he was later stripped of his title.

Much of the suspense lies in the Schleck-Evans showdown. Can Schleck, who is not a strong time trialist, make his lead stand up?

"I'm confident I can keep this into Paris," Schleck said, referring to the yellow jersey for the race leader. He had powered into contention Thursday with a bold attack on the second of three major climbs.

Late Thursday, Contador praised Schleck's strategy and declared his own chances of winning this Tour de France over. Schleck, though, refused to dismiss Contador as a threat.

Still, Contador announced his presence, pushing the pace early, sprinting from the peloton well before the riders climbed Col du Galibier again, from the opposite side they ascended Thursday.

Schleck followed.

In doing so, Contador changed the complexion of this stage, forcing the favorites – including Evans, Schleck and his brother Frank Schleck – to keep pace. The eventual stage winner, Pierre Rolland of France, later said he owed Contador for pushing forward in more typical Contador fashion, teeth bared, body bouncing back and forth.

Contador will remember this Tour with disappointment, for the bad luck and the series of crashes and the sore right knee – and for Thursday, too, when Andy Schleck left him behind in the mountains. Yet despite their rivalry and any bad blood lingering from last year's Tour, which Contador won, the two worked together through Galibier. Contador finished Friday's stage in third place but remained nearly four minutes behind in the overall standings.

"I may not get the win," Contador said. "But I am happy with the stage."

As Contador and Schleck sped, Evans slowed, albeit briefly, because of a mechanical issue with his bike. France's Thomas Voeckler, who had improbably retained the yellow jersey from Stage 9 until Friday, continued to plow forward as the fan favorite here. But as he had predicted for a week, he dropped in the standings, into fourth place.

Voeckler and Rolland touched off celebrations Friday on the Alpe d'Huez and throughout France. The host country has not had a cyclist win this race since 1985. Yet Voeckler hung on, day after day, his tongue wagging from exhaustion, daring the French to dream.

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