Tour de France: Andy Schleck triumphs but Alberto Contador stays in pole
Andy Schleck may have won the battle but Alberto Contador has surely now won the war.
The two rivals fought each other all the way up the Tourmalet yesterday and if at the finish it was Schleck who nudged ahead to be first over the line, Contador retained his overall lead of eight seconds and must now be huge favourite to be wearing yellow in Paris on Sunday.
With a 52-kilometre individual time trial the only challenge left — Contador is usually far superior to Schleck in that particular discipline — the Tour is almost certain to be taken by the Spaniard for a third time in four years.
By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that Schleck has gifted Contador the win, and on the Tour's last Pyrenean stage the 25-year-old from Luxembourg pushed his rival mercilessly.
For the first 150 kilometres, as a six-man breakaway including Sky's Juan Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson Hagen led the race, the only highlights were a bad crash for Spain's Samuel Sanchez, third overall, and a herd of sheep staging a pitch invasion on the Soulour climb.
But as soon as the road reared upwards on the Tourmalet, Schleck sent his Saxo Bank troops to the front, with even prologue winner Fabian Cancellara — normally a poor climber — turning up the pace.
As the break ahead disintegrated, Saxo Bank's pressure shredded the peloton to just 40 riders after just three kilometres of climbing.
But if Contador was losing support riders unusually quickly as a
horribly grimacing Chris Anka Sorensen pounded away at the head of the pack, the Spaniard himself looked totally comfortable in the middle of the bunch.
After Flecha was caught thanks to yet another SaxoBank rider, Jakob Fuglsang, accelerating again, it was Schleck's turn to strike.
His tall frame clad in the white of best young rider, hunched over his frame, Schleck bounded clear. But in a scenario that repeated itself time and again on the final 10 kilometres, whenever he looked round, it was to see a yellow rider, almost ghostly in the mist, shadowing him close behind.
For 25 long minutes, the two riders' positions barely changed: Schleck ahead, glancing back every kilometre or so, but usually staring fixedly into the mist, and Contador, mouth open, sticking like glue to his back wheel.
Every so often Schleck would attempt to open a gap with another gradual acceleration — it was later estimated around 15 times — but he was already close to his upper limit and Contador could respond easily.
The only major attack came from the Spaniard, who briefly opened a gap with a vicious little charge three kilometres from the line. But Schleck quickly responded with a counter-move, coming alongside Contador and even talking to him briefly.
“I asked him to go ahead for a little bit so I could attack him, but he was too clever for that,” Schleck said later.
Under a leaden sky with no real change of position, the racing grew a shade monotonous, although the spectators, even more colourful than usual despite the heavy rain and fog, provided roadside entertainment.
“I tried time and again, but I could only do slight accelerations — he was too strong,” Schleck said. “But it was impossible, Alberto was very smart, he knew he had to stick on my wheel and that was it.”
Schleck also said that he did not regard the race as completely decided. “I know I said whoever led in the Tourmalet would win in Paris, but there's still only eight seconds between us.
“Alberto used to be the best climber in the world, but I've proved at the very least that I'm the best climber in this year's Tour, so who knows what will happen in the time trial? It's certainly not over yet.”
As for Contador, the Spaniard preached caution, but as he donned the yellow jersey, he gave his widest grin yet of the entire Tour. “The important thing today was not to lose time or the yellow and I achieved both of those objectives,” he said.