Tour de France: Andy Schleck’s geared up for a decisive battle
When Andy Schleck was asked about the importance of today's stage of the Tour de France, which culminates with the ascent of the legendary Tourmalet climb deep in the Pyrenees, the 25-year-old contender could not have been clearer.
“If you're wearing the yellow jersey at the top of the Tourmalet, you'll be wearing yellow in Paris,” the SaxoBank rider predicted.
It would be hard to disagree: the Tourmalet is the final mountain-top finish of the 2010 Tour, it is by far the most difficult, and historically, on its 75 previous ascents — a Tour record — it has almost always played a crucial and dramatic part in deciding the race.
The Tourmalet's last Tour de France summit finish was in 1974, but even when the race finished halfway up the mountain, at the ski station of La Mongie, as it did in 2002 and 2004, the gruelling nature of the climb sorted the men from the boys and it was here that Lance Armstrong settled the Tour in his favour. Both times.
However, on those occasions the Tour centred on waiting to see when Armstrong would make his first telling move in the mountains, which he did with unremittingly tedious regularity as soon as the race hit the Alps or Pyrenees.
In this year's race there is far more tension and uncertainty: just eight seconds separate the two-time winner Alberto Contador, who was victorious last year, from Schleck, the man he pushed into second in 2009, at the top of the Tour standings — and the race is almost certain to come down to the two of them.
Lurking at the back of everyone's mind, too, as the road steepens for the 15.5km Pyrenean ascent, will be the final challenge of the Tour — the 53km time trial through the flatlands of Bordeaux on Saturday.
But for the pure climbers like Schleck, victory on the Tourmalet is not enough. As was the case for Charly Gaul when the so-called ‘Angel of the Mountains’ became the last Luxemberg rider to win the Tour 52 years ago, Schleck's time trial rivals have to be distanced by enough time on Thursday to ensure they cannot close the gap on Saturday.
That will be easier said than done, even if after dominating in the mountains in 2009 — and in the Tour of Spain he won in 2008, Contador is by no means as strong this year. Rather so far in the Tour, in the three days in the Alps and three in the Pyrenees, Contador and Schleck's mountains performances have been tantalisingly close to a draw.
It was a sign of how much pressure Contador feels he is under that he refused to hold a leaders rest-day press conference yesterday, as is the usual tradition, having only a few brief words to say to one Spanish news agency, EFE.
“If I can decide the race on the Tourmalet, I will,” the 27-year-old said. “It's a mythical summit, where you'll have to be the most intelligent as well as the strongest to win.
“But I'm prepared for battle, and whilst the Tourmalet has a huge place in the Tour's history, the most important thing will be to win in Paris.”
The Spaniard's most important problem though is that for almost everyone barring the time triallists and sprinters, the Tourmalet is both the Tour's biggest prize and its last chance saloon.
Even Lance Armstrong, with his morale bouncing back after Tuesday's breakaway, has said he would have a crack at one last attack — and his RadioShack team made no secret of the fact.
“It's not yet finished, there's one last mountain stage and we're going to try again,” team manager Johan Bruyneel said.
So could Armstrong form an alliance with whoever the future 2010 Tour winner may be on the Tourmalet and take a last stage victory whilst his breakaway partner wraps up the race overall?