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Tour de France stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 18: Pinerolo to Galibier-Serre Chevalier, 200.5km

Andy Schleck lost a lot of friends over the past week with his half-hearted attacking in the Pyrenees and his criticism of the challenging descents of the previous two days. But there was nothing tentative about his solo attack 60km from the finish which catapulted him into second overall – just 15 seconds behind Thomas Voeckler – as Alberto Contador finally cracked, effectively ending both his title defence and his run of six consecutive Grand Tour wins.

Cadel Evans drags the yellow jersey group up the Galibier in pursuit of Andy Schleck (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Schleck rolls the dice

On a day featuring three of the Tour’s toughest hors catégorie climbs, HTC-Highroad and Movistar set a fierce tempo in excess of 50kph from the outset, as they sought to prevent any early breaks. However, just 2km before the intermediate sprint at 46.5km a group of 16 finally escaped the peloton with Leonardo Duque (Cofidis) first to cross the line. This effectively neutralised the green jersey competition for the day.

Three more riders subsequently rode away from the peloton to create a 19-man group at the base of the hors catégorie Col Agnel, with an advantage of 8:55. At 23.7km and an average gradient of 6.5%, the Agnel is one of the longest and toughest climbs used by the Tour. It is also the highest point of this year’s race, with its summit at 2,744m. The break started to splinter on the climb, with Astana’s Maxim Iglinsky leading over the top before a group of 13 eventually reformed.

On the Col d’Izoard, the middle climb of the day, the lead group was whittled down to seven before Iglinsky attacked off the front, pulling out an advantage of over 30 seconds. Behind them, Leopard-Trek moved to the front of the peloton, with Jens Voigt and Stuart O’Grady tapping out a fast enough tempo to rapidly shell many riders, including a number of specialist climbers, out of the back of the yellow jersey group.

Andy Schleck's audacious attack put him right back in the running for the yellow jersey

The move was a clear prelude to an attack, and sure enough it was Andy Schleck who accelerated out of the peloton with over 60km still remaining, finally putting everything into a concerted surprise attack as the leaders hesitated, uncertain whether to respond, before letting him go. Into a headwind, he powered up towards the summit as teammate Joost Posthuma dropped back from the breakaway to give him a tow for a spell.

Iglinksy made it two-for-two, leading over the top of the Izoard ahead of the four remaining survivors of the break. Schleck went over the top in sixth, about two minutes behind Iglinsky and two in front of the dwindling yellow jersey group.

Leopard-Trek’s second man in the break, Maxime Monfort, then sat up and waited for his team leader to support him down the long descent into the valley towards Briançon. With no one organising the chase behind them, the Schleck group continued to reel in Iglinsky, catching him just inside 30km to form a lead group of six – Schleck, Monfort, Iglinsky, Nicolas Roche (AG2R), Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) and Egor Silin (Katusha).

Evans drags the yellow jersey group single-handed up the Galibier

Approached from the south, the Galibier is actually two climbs in one. The 14km ascent of the Col du Lautaret is relatively gentle, rarely topping 5%, before the riders turn right on to the final 8.5km ascent of the Galibier, which averages 6.9% but exceeds 12% at the summit.

On the lower slopes of the Lautaret, Schleck dragged the lead sextet forward on his own, extending their advantage over the maillot jaune before Monfort, Devenyns and Silin fell away, leaving Schleck to tow Iglinsky and Roche up the road. With everyone in the yellow jersey group reluctant to lead the chase into the headwind, the gap grew to 4:25 with 10km to go, at which point Schleck’s pace became too much for Roche. Iglinsky was also struggling to hold Schleck’s wheel, and he too dropped off shortly after the start of the Galibier proper.

Evans was forced to do the hard work to close the gap to Schleck

Behind them, it was left to a reluctant Cadel Evans to take the initiative. He moved to the front of the peloton at the 10km mark and ramped up the speed, lining out the group and slowly but surely shedding stragglers out of the back. Grimacing with the effort and receiving no help whatsoever from the others, he took back a minute of Schleck’s advantage in the space of 3km before the gap stabilised at around 3:25. The other leaders were either content to sit on his wheel and let him do the hard work, or they were simply not capable of any additional speed.

Contador hovered consistently towards the back of the group, marked watchfully by Fränk Schleck, as he started to look increasingly laboured. But others cracked first. Samuel Sánchez blew up, soon followed by Tom Danielson and then the polka dot jersey of Jelle Vanendert. With Evans still forced to grind away on the front and carry the ever-thinning group along with him, they continued to haul a tiring Schleck back in one excruciating second at a time. With 2km to go the gap was down to 3:04, putting Schleck in the virtual yellow jersey by 28 seconds.

And then Contador, the three-time champion, slowly detached from the back of the group. He dug deep to claw his way back on, but it was no more than a final flash of champion’s spirit and he immediately dropped off again, his challenge done.

Voeckler continues to defy expectation by clinging on to the yellow jersey

With the gap to Schleck dipping under three minutes, Pierre Rolland relieved Evans at the front to try to save the maillot jaune for his teammate Thomas Voeckler. The Frenchman, seeking a tenth day in yellow, attacked in the final kilometre, taking Ivan Basso, Evans and Fränk Schleck with him, but quickly faded. The elder Schleck sprinted eight seconds clear of an exhausted Evans to take second and leapfrog him in the general classification. Basso was just behind, with the yellow jersey following soon after. Voeckler stopped the clock 2:21 after Andy Schleck, keeping him in the maillot jaune by just 15 seconds. Contador limped over the line a further 1½ minutes back.

It had been a heroic effort by Voeckler, who most had expected to concede the race lead today. The hard but steady pace of the leaders’ group on the Galibier played into his hands – had they been attacking each other he would certainly have lost touch – but nonetheless this was a ride of the utmost courage. Chapeau.

Evans too deserves a massive tip of the hat for taking on the pace-setting single-handed for most of the final 10km. Although he lacks the quick acceleration to catch the eye, his relentless effort proved to be too much for all but a select few.

But the greatest credit must go to Andy Schleck. Leopard-Trek had a plan for the day, and he executed it perfectly. To attack successfully more than 60km from the finish is practically unprecedented in the modern sport; to finish with an advantage of more than two minutes on one of the toughest Tour stages ever speaks volumes, and goes some way to answering the critics (myself included) who questioned his toughness and willingness to commit to an all-out attack.

Schleck’s success eliminated the reigning champion from contention and turned the general classification upside-down, although the late surge from the yellow jersey group arguably tipped the balance back in favour of Evans who is just 57 seconds behind him. However, the great unanswered question is what condition each of the contenders will be in tomorrow. Who will pay for their efforts today? Certainly Evans, Andy Schleck and Voeckler gave everything, whereas Fränk was able to sit in the wheels and enjoy a relatively easy ride – and he has already won on Alpe d’Huez in the past.

Voeckler and Vanendert remain in the yellow and polka dot jerseys, while Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) took over the white jersey from Sky’s Rigoberto Urán. Mark Cavendish also retains the green jersey, but as one of 88 riders to finish in the gruppetto 35:40 behind the stage winner – over two minutes outside the time limit – he was deducted 20 points, reducing his lead over José Joaquín Rojas to just 15 points.

After the stage, Andy Schleck admitted he needed to take a big risk today:

I said to myself, “I’m going to risk everything, it’ll work or it’ll fail.” I’m not afraid of losing.

He added that his long-range attack was part of a carefully prepared team plan:

We had a very precise plan today. We said we would send two riders in the breakaway. We wanted one good rouleur and one good climber in the break. On the Col d’Izoard, I would attack. In cycling you make a lot of plans, but a lot of times there are factors in play that you cannot control. Today, the plan worked out perfectly.

Evans admitted that he had faced a tactical dilemma because he was outnumbered two to one:

I had to put it on the line, but it was my Tour to win and mine to lose. They [the Schlecks] really had to do a long-range attack. I can’t control an attack 30km out. And if Andy comes back, Fränk’s probably going to go away. With Andy away, there’s only one I have to control in the final.

Voeckler admitted the end of the stage had been a real struggle for him on a day when he had given absolutely everything:

I lacked oxygen, it was hard for me to recover, my legs hurt badly.

To keep the yellow jersey was beyond my expectations at Luz-Ardiden, then again at the Plateau de Beille, and now here at the Galibier. I give everything. I can’t guarantee anything else to the fans other than the fact that I’m fighting. The suffering is enormous.

I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen tomorrow. I only want to take a rest.

Finally, Contador conceded that his bid to win a fourth Tour title was now over after a day on which he discovered the tank was empty:

I had a bad day. I had no power in the last 10 kilometres. I felt incredibly worn out and don’t know why. It was easy enough to stay on the wheel on the first part of Galibier but I wasn’t able to attack and ride like I wanted to.

It is hard to tell how much of Contador’s sub-par form has been due to his knee troubles and how much is the effect of a tough Giro d’Italia exacting its toll on him. What we do know for sure is that this will be the first time since the 2005 Tour de France that Contador has failed to win a Grand Tour he has entered. It is the end of an incredible run.

So we will now see a new champion crowned in Paris on Sunday. Who that will be, however, remains very much in the balance. Tomorrow the picture should become a little clearer.

Stage 19 preview

The last high mountain stage of this year’s race is nearly 100km shorter than today’s, but no less challenging. This one will be all action from the word go, with a fast and furious descent pitching the peloton straight into a second ascent of the Galibier (16.7km, 6.8%), this time from the marginally less steep north side via the Col du Télégraphe (11.9km, 7.1%). A helter-skelter descent will then ensue as the favourites set off in pursuit of the inevitable breakaway before tackling the iconic 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez, which averages 7.9% over its 13.8km length and offers no quarter for tired legs already sapped by the previous two climbs.

Many famous names have won here – Armstrong, Hinault, Coppi, Pantani – and many other, equally legendary names have not, such as Merckx, Anquetil, Indurain and Contador. Of this year’s starters only Fränk Schleck (in 2006) has won a stage at the Alpe. With the fate of the yellow jersey still uncertain, the final climb will be a tense one with everyone desperate to eke out a few more seconds on everyone else.

Stage 18 result:

1. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 6:07:56

2. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:07

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +2:15

4. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +2:18

5. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) +2:21

General classification:

1. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 79:34:06

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:15

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:08

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) +1:12

5. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +3:46

6. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +3:46

7. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +4:44

8. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +5:20

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +7:08

10. Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2R La Mondiale) +9:27

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 300 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 285

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 230

4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 215

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 180

Mountains classification:

1. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 74 pts

2. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 72

3. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 70

4. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 56

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 50

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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

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