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Grenoble: Time Trial

Cadel Evans starting his time trial in Grenoble

[Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images]

We had our days of truth on the climbs of the Alps. Today it was our last day of truth, the one and only individual time trial of this year’s Tour and the last chance for anyone to gain time on his fellow riders before tomorrow’s ceremonial closing ride into Paris. Important as this day was, there really wasn’t much to keep track of. With Andy Schleck in yellow, brother Frank 53 seconds back, Cadel Evans 57 seconds back, and everyone else out of the picture, the only question was whether Evans, the best time trialist of the trio, would be able to catch Andy Schleck and win the Tour. Catching Frank was a given, with only a 4 second difference.

Evans, the Tour runner up in 2007 and 2008, is far the better time trialist of the two. But Andy Schleck, Tour runner up in 2009 and 2010, has improved over the years. Maybe he could hold on. After all, last year he lost only 31 seconds to Contador in the time trial on the final Saturday. He had started 8 seconds behind, but Contador is a fine time trialist and it was anticipated that he would widen that lead significantly over Schleck. If Schleck could lose only 31 seconds today to Evans, he would win the Tour.

Tony Martin set the pace early with a 55’33” time on the 42.5k course that no one else was getting anywhere close to. My goal was to be awake in time to watch the final six riders as they started in reverse order to their standings: Contador, Cunego, Voeckler, Evans, Schleck, and Schleck. I should perhaps explain that each rider goes off alone, with 3-minute gaps in the start times for the leaders. Thus, 15 minutes would pass between Contador’s start and Andy Schleck’s. With no direct competition, one gauges how they are doing along the way by times taken at checkpoints.

I managed to wake up before my alarm was set to go off, reached over, and shut it. But I got lucky, awakening again at 7:00 AM and racing down to turn on the TV. I changed the channel just in time to see Contador roll down the start ramp. Well, this wasn’t luck entirely, since I had estimated last night that 7:00 was exactly when I had to be up for Contador’s start, give or take a few minutes.

Watching time trials is not ideal, since there’s so little information available. One ends up listening to Phil reporting on the drama in his head, if not on the road. Contador rode well, hitting the checkpoints just a little behind Tony Martin’s times, and soon Phil was suggesting that he might climb past not just Cunego into 5th but also Voeckler into 4th. Evans was magnificent, hitting the checkpoints just seconds behind Martin, way ahead of everyone else. It soon emerged that the Schlecks weren’t doing well at all. No surprise for Frank, but Andy’s times were Frank’s equal, putting both well behind Martin, Evans, and Contador. Indeed, soon Phil got a little over-excited and suggested that Contador might even jump over Frank Schleck and into 3rd overall, good enough for a spot on the podium. This would turn out to be madness, both because Frank wasn’t riding that badly and because the gap to Contador at the start of the day was way too large at 3’02”.

In any case, as Evans continued to race well enough to suggest that he might even win the stage, his ride into yellow became a certainty and there wasn’t much else to pay attention to, other than wild speculations about changes in the standings. There was a mini-race lower down among the two top young riders for the white jersey. Pierre Rolland seemed to have it in control after his dramatic win on the climb of Alpe d’Huez yesterday, moving him into 10th overall, but Rein Taaramae, in 12th overall 1’33” behind, had a good time trial going and perhaps he could pull that time back. Well, no. Taaramae finished 2’03” behind Martin’s time on the day, good enough for what would turn out to be 10th in the time trial. A few minutes later, Rolland came across 2’50” behind Martin, in what would be 21st on the day. He had lost time to Taaramae, but not enough to lose the white jersey. However, fellow Frenchman Jean Christophe Peraud had a time over a minute better than Rolland, 6th on the day and enough to displace Rolland for 10th in the overall standings. The upshot: Taaramae is in 12th overall, Rolland in 11th but in the white jersey, Peraud in 10th and taking over from Rolland for top Frenchman in the Tour.

Next, as we awaited further developments on the leaders, top American rider Tom Danielson finished in a time good enough to hold onto 9th overall, and Ivan Basso was able to hold onto 8th overall. But when Sanchez finished in what at that point was the 5th best time of the day (awaiting Contador and Evans) and Contador finished in what at that point was 2nd best time of the day (awaiting Evans and pushing Sanchez down a notch), they thereby set themselves up to move ahead of Cunego overall, as he came in a few minutes after that in 31st on the day. So Cunego slid from 5th to 7th overall, with Sanchez moving into 6th and Contador moving into 5th.

Next in was the valiant Voeckler, never giving up, riding a fine time trial good enough for 14th on the day and preserving his 4th position overall, 37 seconds ahead of Contador. Evans would be next in.

And there he was, entering Grenoble, pedaling away, looking powerful, unlabored, the yellow jersey a certainty. And still within reach of Martin’s time and the stage win, as best anyone knew. It was close, but no, he didn’t get the win, finishing 7 seconds behind Martin’s time. He appeared just a bit disappointed as he crossed the line. He surely would have loved the double victory. But he would have to content himself with 2nd on the day and the yellow jersey, and content he undoubtedly was. It was a great ride. A historic ride. And the closest rider on the day besides Martin was Contador, a full 59 seconds behind Evans. Only Martin had a ride in the same league today.

The two Schlecks came in soon thereafter. First Frank, 2’41” behind Martin’s winning time, then Andy, 2’38” behind. This put them 17th and 20th in the stage, among the better riders but not at the level the day demanded. Frank held onto 3rd overall, Andy dropping from 1st to 2nd.

An amazing day, really, but not one of visible amazingness. Just conceptual. What must Andy Schleck do to win one of these? He must be wondering, but maybe the answer is obvious. He can improve his time trial skills, though it’s not as if he hasn’t been working on them. Or maybe he has to find a way to build bigger leads in the mountains. In retrospect, Evans wouldn’t let him. He does have an age advantage over Evans of over 8 years. Other riders will rise, of course, but after three straight second place finishes, Andy seems sure to win one, or maybe several, soon.

I had my eye out for familiar sights in Grenoble, but in the street views, as the riders rolled through, there was nothing obviously recognizable. The views from the air were better. Near the end of the coverage, there were repeated shots of the Bastille, the little rocky hill or mini-mountain that rises up on the opposite side of the Isère from downtown. During our visit two Octobers ago, we took the télépherique up to it just in time to watch the sun set behind the Alps to the southwest. The views weren’t the sharpest, due to some haze, but it was still a commanding outlook, and a great way to finish the day, having looked down from Alpe d’Huez just a few hours earlier. (Below, a shot of the city and the Isère moments just after rising out of the downtown télépherique station on the way up to the Bastille.)

The top places in the Tour are now decided (with the obligatory comment — as long as no one falls off his bike tomorrow and can’t continue). But ceremonial though the ride may be, there’s still the closing sprint and one more chance for Mark Cavendish to shine. Tyler Farrar may have something to say about that. Or André Greipel. In a scene just after today’s racing finished, Cavendish was shown, arm around teammate Tony Martin, congratulating him. Very sweet. I love the guy. We’re not done with the drama yet.

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