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Duel in the Clouds

Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, Col du Tourmalet

The Tour de France ended last Sunday. The preceding Thursday, eight days ago, I sat down to write about one of the most memorable stages of this or any tour, but never got past the title and the photo above. So much more happened in the three days that followed, and now it’s long over. But I don’t want the moment to slide by unnoticed, so I’ll say a few words here.

It came as no surprise that that Thursday’s climb of the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenées would be a big one. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck had demonstrated in the Alps and in the three previous stages of the Pyrenées that they stood alone as the top climbers of this year’s Tour, and the climb of the Tourmalet would be the last chance for one to show his superiority over the other. The general thinking was that Schleck had to do so — if in fact he could — in order to build a margin that Contador couldn’t gain back two days later in the individual time trial. (Friday and Sunday would be flat stages with sprint finishes, with no opportunity for the Tour leaders to gain time on one another. The overall lead would come down to head-to-head performances on Tourmalet Thursday and in the time trial Saturday.)

The climb was every bit as dramatic as anticipated. Half way up, as their team support disappeared, Schleck broke away and Contador followed him, leaving all the other Tour leaders behind. (It’s always striking in any Tour how clearly the hierarchy of ability or fitness for that given Tour is validated day after day. No one could keep up with the leading duo, yet in turn, the next four or five top riders roughly were able to stay even with each other, ahead of the others. The differences are small, but they are consistent and repeatable. Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov, in a tight race for third and fourth overall, would ride together all the way up, with Sanchez ultimately gaining 8 seconds on the day to increase his overall lead over Menchov to 21 seconds.)

Schleck and Contador continued up the narrow, twisting road, with crowds lining both sides, leaving only a narrow channel for them to ride through, and with clouds obscuring any view up the road to the coming turns or the finish. It was breathtaking to watch, kilometer after kilometer, with Schleck in the lead and Contador on his wheel. When Schleck made a major attack, Contador caught him in seconds. Just once, Contador attacked, and Schleck tracked him down, passed him, and gave him a hard stare. It was surely clear to both, with 2 or 3 kilometers left, that neither would gain big time on the other. Perhaps around that point, they decided to drop the attacks. Or perhaps not, but there were no visible attacks after that, as Contador continued to ride on Schleck’s wheel. One imagined he would wait for the final 200 meters to take a shot at stage victory. As they passed under the 1k to go banner, by which point fencing normally appears on the road to keep the crowds away and provide room for attacks, there was in fact no fencing. The road remained too narrow for that. With maybe 300 meters to go, the fencing appeared at last, and Contador could attack if he wished. But he didn’t. He came up almost side-by-side with Schleck, then dropped back a bit to let Schleck take the stage. Ten meters past the line, Schleck leaned into Contador and put his arm around him. When they dismounted seconds later, they hugged.

A grand stage. Should they have fought to the last meter? Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. They were destined at that point to finish with no time gap, or a tiny one if either got away. Not enough to affect the overall race. And Contador had reason to be gracious, given his attack a few days earlier when Schleck’s chain came off, the attack that gave him the overall lead.

The next day of the Tour that kept on giving featured the most wonderful sprint finish into Bordeaux. Mark Cavendish, without great leadout teammate Mark Renshaw, showed he could do it on his own, roaring past Alessandro Petacchi (with Julian Dean also passing for second) to win his fourth stage of the Tour. Petacchi’s third-place finish allowed him to reclaim the green jersey of overall sprint leader from Thor Hushovd, but no one doubted that Cavendish was the true king of the sprinters.

Saturday brought the individual time trial, with Schleck just 8 seconds back of Contador and, as noted, Menchov just 21 seconds behind Sanchez in fourth. They departed in reverse order of the standings — Menchov, Sanchez, Schleck, and Contador. On past performance, Schleck might have given up a minute or two to Contador on the day, but he rode better than expected, losing only 31 seconds. He had to settle for second, but he gave promise that he is improving as a time trialist and will be in a stronger position next year to win the yellow jersey. In the race for third, Menchov, with one of the best rides of the day (and by far the best of those riders starting late, with the weather having changed for the worse), was able to gain two minutes over Sanchez and move into third place. One of the oddities of the TV commentary of Phil and Paul was their continued insistence that Schleck was riding a great time trial, whereas Sanchez was collapsing and losing his third place position. Yet, Sanchez finished 23 seconds ahead of Schleck. Not that that had any effect on the overall race. And in terms of expectations, Schleck did ride well, whereas Sanchez, the winner of the 2008 Olympic road race, might have been expected to do better.

Anyway, that was that. All that remained was the ceremonial ride into Paris (for the leaders) and one more mad sprint finish. As long as Cavendish is in the race, every sprint finish has the potential for excitement, and this one didn’t disappoint. As they left Place de la Concorde for the final 300 meters, Hushovd, in a desperate attempt to regain the green jersey, was riding in second position, behind his leadout man Brett Lancaster. But he had no hope, what with Petacchi in third and Cavendish fourth. Lancaster dropped off, Petacchi moved to Hushovd’s left to pass him as a side-view camera focused on them and lost sight of Cavendish. Suddenly, there he was in the background, like a jet, zooming past them all on the right, gaining a three-bike-length lead in a flash. It was a stunning display of dominance, again with no leadout man of his own, and a fitting conclusion to the Tour.

All that remained was the podium appearances. And you know what that means: podium girls. Fortunately, the NYT had a great article on them Sunday, perfect preparation for watching their final appearances. Who knew that the beautiful bestower of the white jersey (for best young rider) was an American from St. Louis, Laura Antoine? There she was, one last time, with Andy Schleck. And there was Lance, with his Radio Shack teammates, saying farewell to the Tour. (Thank God Robin Williams didn’t show up yet again to pal around with Lance. And the less said about Tom Cruise, the better.)

Another Tour gone. I know it’s too early for summer to be over, but a big piece of summer has come and gone way too quickly.

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