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Day of Truth

Thomas Voeckler, the glory and the pain

Boy oh boy what a day! I wrote last night that today would be the day of truth — hardly a novel suggestion, I should add — and indeed it was. The big surprise: Andy Schleck’s decision to make a move not on the the last of today’s three great climbs but on the second one, on the way up the Col d’Izoard. It was a gamble, opening the door to a complete collapse on the closing climb, up the Col du Galibier. Schleck knew the risk, as he agreed in a post-race interview, but he also knew this was his chance to put some distance between himself and the other leaders, and so he did, as they let him go.

To put this in proper context, a large breakaway group lay ahead on the climb, and when he caught them, he would have teammates to help, Maxime Monfort in particular. This worked well, with Monfort pacing him for a while. As he headed up Galibier, he had opened a 3’30” gap over the elite, putting him “in yellow on the road” — the leader of the Tour if the race were to be frozen at that moment.

The elite had to respond. But among the elite was Andy’s teammate and brother Frank, who had no desire to help the others catch up. It fell to Cadel Evans, who to this point looked like he might be the strongest rider in the Tour, to do all the work, what with Andy and Frank being the ones besides Evans who have looked strongest. Implicit in what I just said is that if Alberto Contador had any hope of a win or a podium finish, now was the time to show that he was their equal. Stunningly (under the heading “day of truth”), he wasn’t up to it. He moved back and forth among the lead group, but share in the work. So Evans did it all, with Frank Schleck staying close, as did the other members of the elite: Contador, Sanchez, Basso, Cunego, and of course Thomas Voeckler, this Tour’s biggest surprise. Voeckler was, after all, still the holder of the yellow jersey, and if they could pull back a minute on Andy Schleck, he could keep the yellow. He’s been magnificent in the Pyrenees and the Alps in his defense of the jersey. Staying with the others has been challenge enough. Sharing the work in closing a gap was too much to ask. So, again, the work fell to Evans.

Up Galibier they went, Andy alone in the lead, the elite pack (having disposed of the breakaway riders) giving chase. They weren’t gaining on him, but no one could afford to lose still more. Shockingly, Sanchez and Contador both fell off the pace in the final two kilometers. It’s amazing how much time one can lose in such a short distance once one cracks. But equally well, Andy Schleck slowed his pace. One can’t say he cracked. He held on for a dramatic stage win. But in the final kilometer, he had nothing left. He passed under the 1K banner, then maybe 20 seconds later, the chase group passed by the 2K marker. He still had a lead of over 3 minutes. Evans set a relentless pace. With Contador and Sanchez gone, the only riders staying with him were Frank Schleck (still looking good but making no effort to help catch his brother), Voeckler (looking past dead), Basso, Cunego, and Pierre Rolland. And they were bringing that gap down.

Schleck crossed the finish line arms raised, exultant, completing one of the great stage wins in recent memory. His gamble had paid off. But would he be in yellow? Evans continued to push in the final kilometer. And then Frank Schleck, having taken advantage of Evans all day and so relatively rested, made a move in the final 200 meters to finish second, grabbing 8 seconds on Evans. Basso came in 3 seconds after Evans. Voeckler 3 seconds after Basso. Then 6 second gaps to Rolland and to Cunego. But Frank was only 2’07” behind brother Andy. They had taken a minute and a half off his lead. Voeckler, 2’21” behind Andy, would stay in yellow. What a look on his face! The most extraordinary combination of pain and joy. (See above.) And that little move by Frank at the end to grab 8 seconds off Evans allowed him to jump ahead in the overall standings.

Voeckler stayed in first, Andy went from 4th to 2nd, Frank stayed in 3rd, Evans dropped from 2nd to 4th. But very little separates them, while there are big time gaps down to the rest. This has become a four-man race. One is tempted to say it’s really a three-man race, between the brothers Schleck and Evans. Voeckler can’t really keep this up, can he?

More details: Voeckler’s lead over Andy Schleck is just 15 seconds. Frank is 1’08” behind Voeckler, Cadel Evans 1’12” behind. It’s a big jump down to Cunego and Basso in fifth and sixth, both 3’46” behind. Contador sits still farther behind in 7th, with a 4’44” gap, and Sanchez is 5’20” back. (American Tom Danielson remains in 9th, but way back — 7’08” behind.)

Take Voeckler away and 57 seconds separate Andy from Cadel Evans. Based on past performance, Evans could well make up that much time on Andy (and the tiny gap on Frank) in the individual time trial on Saturday. Thus, there’s a lot of pressure on the Schlecks to continue the attack tomorrow on the climb up to Alpe d’Huez. Today identified the four riders who will fight it out for the three podium spots. But we won’t have a clue about the ordering until tomorrow’s climb and Saturday’s time trial.

You might want to keep in mind that Frank Schleck won the Alpe d’Huez stage five years ago. He knows something about that climb. Maybe he can make his own move tomorrow. Or maybe he’ll pull brother Andy up and put him in yellow. Maybe Evans will be the one to attack. Can Voeckler ride with the this trio? He keeps predicting that he won’t stay in yellow. This time I bet he’s right. It will be exciting.

And of course we have the extra excitement of having made our own ascent of Alpe D’Huez two Octobers ago, albeit by car rather than bike. We know that turn onto the mountain road from the valley village of Le Bourg d’Oisans. We know those switchbacks. We’ll be cheering as though we were there.

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Categories: Cycling
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