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Alpe d’Huez

[Taken by me, October 29, 2009]

I’ve been eagerly awaiting today’s stage since the route was announced last October. For that matter, I’ve been eagerly awaiting it since we made our own climb of Alpe d’Huez two Octobers ago. The Tour bypassed Alpe d’Huez last year, so today was the Tour’s first visit since our own. And the visit could not have been more strategically timed, this being the Tour’s final day in the Alps. Tomorrow is the lone individual time trial of the Tour and Sunday is the ceremonial ride into Paris. Thus, today was the last opportunity for major attacks on the climbs. And climbs there were. Not just Alpe d’Huez at the end, but Col du Télégraphe early on and Col du Galibier in the middle.

Yes, they already climbed Col du Galibier. Yesterday, to end the stage. Today they got to climb up from the other side and then make a descent of over 45K to the village of Le Bourg d’Oisans, from which the climb to Alpe d’Huez begins.

In winding up my post last night, I suggested that we were down to a three-man race, the very three-man race one might have guessed days ago that we were down to: Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, and Cadel Evans. Thomas Voeckler remained in first, by 15 seconds over Andy, but surely he couldn’t survive yet another day in the mountains. With the Schlecks and Evans separated from each other by less than a minute, it seemed likely that, with perhaps some changes in the gaps or ordering, they would end today in the top three spots. What I didn’t say, but almost did, was that Contador, who lost time yesterday and as well any hope of a podium spot on Sunday, falling all the way down to 8th, might just have something left in him today. Maybe he would go for it — a stage win, or a remote shot at the podium. I can’t claim credit. I didn’t say it. But I really did think it, and I really did almost say it.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned on the coverage this morning and discovered that Contador had the same idea I did. He went for it, early and often. He led the way up Galibier, with a small group of riders, building a gap on the big three. And there was Thomas Voeckler, yet again, determined to fight every challenge and keep the yellow jersey. Rather than stay with the trio and conserve energy, he was making a crazed, valiant effort on his own to bridge the gap. He was about 30 seconds back and making no progress, with the leaders about 2 minutes back, when finally he cracked and let them come to him, falling farther behind Contador. But they were closing in, and on the long descent they eventually caught him. By the time they approached Le Bourg d’Oisans, they were all together.

Then, off went the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and the Frenchman Pierre Rolland, and Contador followed. In the lower part of Alpe d’Huez, he caught them and kept going. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to create a large enough gap to get back into the fight for the podium, but a stage win on Alpe d’Huez would be the perfect consolation prize. Up and up he went.

Lower down, Evans and the Schlecks were inseparable. No one made a significant attack. Perhaps they were content to maintain their positions, put Voeckler behind them, and await tomorrow’s time trial to fight it out. And Voeckler was behind. Perhaps he could have stayed with them if he hadn’t tried to catch Contador all by himself on Galibier, but he was finally not able to keep up. He would slip to fourth overall, if not worse, and the trio appeared likely to occupy the top three positions at last.

Up above, Contador’s multi-mountain effort was finally taking its toll. He had begun to slow down, allowing Sammy Sanchez (the other big loser yesterday among the elite climbers, along with Contador) and Rolland, who had been riding together, to catch him. At that point, Rolland pulled off a surprise move and kept going. With 2k to go, it suddenly became clear that he was going to win the stage, not Contador, and not Sanchez. And inevitably, the elite group behind was closing the gap themselves.

Rolland crossed first, giving France its first stage win of this year’s Tour. 14 seconds back was Sanchez, 23 seconds back Contador. He had fought valiantly all day, he had finished ahead of the trio, but could do no more. In they came 34 seconds later — the Schlecks, Evans, Velits, Cunego, and De Gendt. Another 18 seconds passed before the Garmin teammates and Hesjedal and Tom Danielson crossed, a finish good enough to keep Danielson, the top American, in 9th place overall. Voeckler would cross in 20th, 3’22” behind Rolland.

The top eight stayed the top eight. But Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, and Evans moved to 1-2-3 while Voeckler slipped to 4th. Cunego held 5th place and Basso fell from 6th to 8th, with Contador and Sanchez moving up. More specifically, Voeckler is 2’10” behind Andy Schleck, Cunego 3’31”, the others still further back, so none of them can make up enough time in the time trial tomorrow to break into the top three. It will indeed be the Schlecks and Evans.

Since they finished together today, the gaps remain unchanged: Frank is 53 seconds behind Andy, and Evans is 4 seconds behind Frank. It would not be the least bit surprising if Evans gains those 4 seconds and more on Frank tomorrow. Figure Frank for 3rd overall at the end of the day. What the Tour comes down to, or so I’m guessing, is whether Evans can make up those 57 seconds on Andy. One of the two will win, the other will be runner-up, each having been runner-up twice already. Evans has the better time trial record, but as Andy said after the race, the yellow jersey makes you fly gives you wings. He’s hoping for some of that magic tomorrow.

It’s been a tremendously exciting Tour. And now it comes down to 42.5k from Grenoble out into the country and back.

We’ll be watching, both to see tomorrow’s drama and to look for familiar sights from our Grenoble visit two falls ago. The first town the route goes through after leaving Grenoble is Vizille, which we went through too on our drive to Alpe d’Huez. We tried to stop on our way back, but parking was impossible, so after circling around and pulling into the most wildly disorganized parking field, on the edge of town, filled with cars parked at every imaginable angle, we abandoned the effort. It’s a lovely town, one we would very much have enjoyed walking around in. Tomorrow we can watch the riders zip through.

By the way, isn’t it great that Cavendish has survived the Alps and is still in green? And what of Rolland, whose stage victory moved him up to 10th and put him in white as best young rider? Might he be challenging for yellow in the years to come, bringing a Tour win to France again?

Two more days. When the Tour ends, a little bit of summer does too. I’m not ready.

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