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Five into two won’t go

Time trials are colloquially referred to as the ‘race of truth’ – the French use the more prosaic ‘contre la montre’ (‘against the clock’) – because they represent a naked test of a cyclist’s individual ability, stripped bare of tactics or the support of teammates.

Usually, they tend to be run over predominantly level courses which favour strong, powerful masochists such as Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins and Lance Armstrong, men who can generate huge amounts of power and have a high tolerance for pain. Specialist climbers often tend to struggle on such courses, the high power-to-weight ratio which works in their favour on the big mountains being nullified on the flat.

Which is what makes Alberto Contador’s performance in winning yesterday’s time trial round the shores of the lake at Annecy doubly impressive. In an era where specialisation is more prevalent than ever – the vast majority of leading riders are exclusively either climbers, sprinters or time-trialers – the Spaniard has developed himself into a rider who can be as dominant with a solid disc rear wheel as he is dancing on the pedals on a 10% gradient.

Such beasts are rare. If you look back at Tour winners of the past dozen years, Carlos Sastre is a fine climber but a distinctly mediocre time-trialer; Marco Pantani was perhaps the best climber of his generation but terrible agianst the clock; Jan Ullrich was a world-class time-trialer and, though a very good climber, lacked explosiveness and the ability to truly dictate terms on the steepest slopes.

Lance Armstrong was such a beast, dominant in both climbing and solo disciplines, but no longer. Merely rendered very good in the mountains, he was able to manage only 16th place yesterday, although that was still enough to move him back up to third. And his announcement that he will be leaving Astana at the end of the season to set up his own US-based team, Team RadioShack, ensured that he continues to command the lion’s share of media coverage.

Wiggins has always been an elite rider in time trials, who this year has become a top-class mountains man too, but he paid the price for his exertions in the Alps, starting strongly but fading against the headwind at the end of the course to finish sixth on the day, 43 seconds behind Contador. He moves up to fourth overall – just 11 seconds behind Armstrong but only two ahead of Andreas Klöden – the meat in an Astana sandwich.

Both Schleck brothers are known strugglers in time trials, and Frank duly trailed in two and a half minutes off the pace, dropping him from third to sixth. But Andy, highly motivated and aided by the presence of a testing category 3 climb in the middle of the course, was able to limit his losses, finishing 1’ 45” behind Contador’s benchmark time, but consolidating his advantage in second place at over a minute.

With his overall lead now standing at 4’ 11”, we can now say with virtual certainty that Alberto Contador will seal his second Tour de France win – and his fourth Grand Tour win in his last four attempts – on Sunday. There can be no argument that he has been head-and-shoulders the best rider over the three weeks, having finished first and second in the Tour’s two time trials, while winning one of the two summit finishes so far, taking time out of all the leading contenders on the other, and withstanding everything the Schelcks could throw at him on Wednesday’s multiple mountain stage to Le Grand-Bornand.

But the final order behind him remains in doubt. Prior to the time trial, I noted the possibility that second to seventh could be covered by as little as a minute. In actuality, only 34 seconds separates third from sixth, and there is less than two minutes between Andy Schleck in second and brother Frank in sixth. The yellow jersey is effectively decided, but it is still all to play for with regards to the other two podium positions. While today’s stage from Bourgoin Jallieu to Aubenas will likely see a truce between the leaders as they conserve their energy – don’t be surprised if a gaggle of minor riders escapes half an hour up the road – the ascent of Mont Ventoux tomorrow, the Tour’s third and final mountain-top finish, will be spectacular as the Schlecks, Armstrong, Wiggins and Klöden look to shake each other off.

Only then will be able to close the book on what has been an action-packed final week of the 2009 Tour de France.

Overall standings after stage 18:
1. Alberto Contador 73h 15’ 39”
2. Andy Schleck @ 4’ 11″ behind
3. Lance Armstrong @ 5’ 25”
4. Bradley Wiggins @ 5’ 36”
5. Andreas Klöden @ 5’ 38”
6. Frank Schleck @ 5’ 59”
7. Vincenzo Nibali @ 7′ 15″
8. Christian Vande Velde @ 10′ 08″
9. Mikel Astarloza @ 12′ 38″
10. Christophe Le Mevel @ 12′ 41″

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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