Tour de France stage 20: Evans triumphs in moment of truth, Schleck becomes the new ‘eternal second’

Stage 20: Grenoble, 42.5km individual time trial

Raymond Poulidor is known as the ‘eternal second’ by virtue of having finished as runner-up at the Tour de France three times without ever winning the race. In today’s battle to avoid becoming the new ‘eternal second’ between the two men who have between them finished second at the last four Tours, Cadel Evans‘ superior time-trialing ability proved too much for Andy Schleck. The Australian will become the first rider from the southern hemisphere to win the Tour tomorrow, while Schleck will brace himself for the inevitable comparisons to Poulidor as he faces up to being runner-up for the third year running.

Cadel Evans lives up to his nickname of 'Cuddles' as he finally dons the yellow jersey (Image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Hanging on a moment of truth

With the omission of the customary prologue, this represented the only individual race against the clock – what is commonly referred to as the ‘race of truth’ – on this year’s route. For many of the riders today’s stage was just a case of personal pride, or even simply getting round ahead of tomorrow’s celebratory romp up and down the Champs-Élysées, but for Evans and Schleck  – both two-time runners-up – it also represented a moment of truth in their careers, their best opportunity to advance from the ranks of cycling’s nearly men to the status of champion.

Lady Gaga wrote the song The Edge of Glory about her dying grandfather, but its lyrics could just have easily been penned in reference to today’s decisive stage:

I’m on the edge of glory

And I’m hanging on a moment of truth

While the battle for the yellow jersey was the main event, this stage was effectively four races in one. The day’s win was tipped to be a showdown between Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek), the world time trial champion, and Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), who had won on this same course just last month at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), the erstwhile race leader, faced an intense battle to protect his fourth place from the four riders immediately behind him. And Pierre Rolland (Europcar) was hoping to see of the challenge of Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and hold onto the white jersey.

Rolland defends the white jersey

Rolland successfully defended the white jersey

The battle for the title of the Tour’s best young rider had boiled down to a head-to-head between Frenchman Rolland, the winner of yesterday’s stage at Alpe d’Huez, and the Estonian Taaramae. They started the day separated by 1:33 – third-placed Jérôme Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) was nearly eight minutes behind – with Taaramae known to be a much stronger time-trialist than his rival. The Estonian set a time of 57:36, which would ultimately be good for tenth overall. And although Rolland conceded time throughout, his final time of 58:23 was enough for him to maintain exactly half his advantage – 46 seconds – to confirm him as the winner of the white jersey competition, barring an aberration tomorrow.

Rolland’s excellent performance was not quite enough to maintain his top ten position as compatriot Jean-Christophe Péraud, a time trial specialist, produced the sixth-fastest time to steal tenth place by 32 seconds, but this should not detract from a a breakthrough three-week showing, who finally confirmed the promise he showed as a 21-year old in winning the mountains classification at the 2008 Dauphiné.

After the stage, Rolland said:

This is the most beautiful day of my career. There are four jerseys to win at the Tour de France and I win one of them! I put out everything I possibly could, I really transcended myself for this jersey, or perhaps because I was wearing it.

Contador charges, but Voeckler holds on to fourth

Voeckler rode arguably the best time trial of his career to hold on to fourth spot

At the start of the stage Thomas Voeckler sat in fourth place, with no more than an outside chance of snatching a podium spot. More realistically, he was racing to defend his position, with four rivals within 2½ minutes of him. Two – Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso – were poor time-trialists who represented minimal threat but the other pair, Alberto Contador and Samuel Sánchez, were vastly superior and both capable of making up their deficits to Voeckler, 1:45 and 2:12 respectively.

The two Spaniards, particularly the defending champion, applied the pressure early on. Sánchez finished in 57:10, seventh quickest on the day. Meanwhile Contador recorded the joint second-fastest time at the first checkpoint. For a while it looked as if he would overhaul Voeckler and possibly even challenge for third, but he faded slightly towards the end. Nonetheless his 56:39 would end up being third-best overall.

That left Voeckler needing to beat 58:24 to hold on to fourth – effectively a top 25 finish, something which has previously been beyond him. However, with the motivation of fourth to aim for, he produced the time trial of his life. Always ahead of the required schedule, he stopped the watch at 57:47, securing fourth place by 37 seconds.

Contador and Sánchez both moved up a place, to fifth and sixth respectively, as Cunego was again let down by his Achilles’ heel and tumbled from fifth to seventh. Basso also had a mediocre run, but held on to eighth.

Fourth surpassed Voeckler’s wildest expectations. No one sane would have put money on that three weeks ago, let alone bet on him beating Contador overall. His has been one of the most romantic stories of this Tour, surpassing even his fairy-tale performance of 2004.

Martin sets fastest time

Martin reprised his Dauphiné win in a near identical time (image courtesy of

World time trial champion and favourite Fabian Cancellara was the 42nd man to set off. However, despite damp roads his time of 57:15 was not as fast as expected. (By comparison, in equally wet conditions at the Dauphiné, Tony Martin had recorded 55:27.)

His legs had no doubt been sapped by a heavy workload in the mountains on behalf of the Schlecks, but even so this was not the dominant Cancellara we are used to seeing. This was confirmed when Richie Porte (Saxo Bank-Sungard) shaved 12 seconds off his time, and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) then lowered the reference time by a further second. Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen would also have beaten Cancellara’s time had he not been forced into a bike change halfway round.

That set the stage for Martin, the heir apparent to Cancellara’s crown. He ripped up the timesheets, destroying the best marks at every checkpoint and finishing in 55:33, just six seconds slower than his winning time at the Dauphiné. It always looked like being enough to win the stage and so it turned out to be, with only one subsequent rider getting within a minute of him. It was a performance of devastating power and speed.

Martin was delighted to have finally won a Tour stage, having seen his hopes of a high GC finish fade in the mountains with illness and poor form:

I felt very good at the start of the race. I quickly found my rhythm, and I managed to climb fast enough all the hills and get up to a good speed on the downhills.

Winning a stage on the Tour de France is my goal for a long time. So it’s a great day for me.

Evans destroys Schleck to seize the yellow jersey

Evans produced an outstanding ride when it mattered most

That left only the final three riders: Cadel Evans, followed by Fränk and finally Andy Schleck. Evans was always going to set off at a high tempo, with the aim of eating into Andy Schleck’s 57-second advantage early on and piling the pressure on. Sure enough, at the first checkpoint he was just 21 seconds down on Martin, joint second-fastest with Contador. By the second split at 27.5km – almost two-thirds distance – he was just seven seconds behind, well clear in second place, and by the third 5km from the end the gap was down to two. Incredibly, it looked like he might even beat Martin’s time, but he slowed slightly towards the end and finished a mere seven seconds behind the German, 59 seconds ahead of third-placed Contador.

Long before the finish, Evans would have been told by his team that both Schlecks were well behind on the clock. Fränk was never a threat, and Andy consistently lost time from the outset to the extent that his 57-second lead had evaporated before the halfway point. Both actually rode pretty decent time trials to finish as high up the order as they could have expected – Fränk was 20th, 2:41 down on Martin, while Andy was three seconds faster in 17th. Even in defeat, the brothers were practically inseparable.

Just watching Evans and Andy Schleck on their bikes revealed the dramatic differences between the two. Evans held a rock-solid aero position, hunched low over his handlebars, while Schleck’s tuck position was less efficient, exacerbated by his height. Too often he would allow his head to lift, resembling a yellow-clad meerkat more than a time-trialist. Add to that Evans’ prior knowledge of the course, meaning he was more aggressive and used the width of the road far more, and the resultant time gap between the pair – 2:31 – was the inevitable result.

Schleck was disappointed but philosophical afterwards, knowing that his 57-second lead was always unlikely to be enough to see him to victory:

I was really focused on this time trial. I realised the full importance of it. We did the reconnaissance this morning and remained committed to leaving everything out on the course.

Cadel did the time trial of his life, and he deserves to win the Tour. We know we did everything we could do in the mountains and today. Both Fränk and I probably did the best time trials we have ever done, but it wasn’t good enough. We don’t have any regrets.

Schleck is still only 26, and already has three second places to his name at the Tour – testament to his quality and consistency. His time will surely come, but with a little more aggression and luck at key moments that time could have been this year. For now, he will have to bear the burden of being labelled as the new Poulidor, the ‘eternal second’.

Evans’ smile on the podium as he finally accepted the yellow jersey was a mixture of joy and relief at a burden being lifted. Finally, the nearly man had delivered when it mattered most, leaving Schleck to look on and wonder if it will ever be him. He was quick to thank everyone who had supported him, including his former coach and mentor Aldo Sassi, who died from brain cancer last December:

Aldo Sassi said to me last year “Now you’ve won the world championship, you’ve made yourself a complete rider but you can win a Grand Tour and I hope for you it’s the Tour de France.” It was he who believed in me from 2001 and he never doubted my abilities, he never gave up with me and he worked through good and bad.

I’ve had some bad moments in the last ten years but that just makes the good moments even better. I can’t quite believe it all quite now. My thanks go to everyone who played a part in today – we’re talking 20 years of work has been put into this performance. I hope the sun is shining tomorrow on the Champs-Elysées.

With just the processional final stage to Paris to negotiate tomorrow, Evans will ride unchallenged to the finish as is the Tour’s custom. At the age of 34, he has finally earned a Grand Tour win, and he has done it the hard way, claiming stage four in a hill-top sprint and twice having to single-handedly chase after potentially crippling breakaways over the mighty Col du Galibier. He may not have the acceleration or the swashbuckling style of a Contador or a Schleck, but he is a thoroughly worthy winner who has earned his moment in the Paris sun. Chapeau, Cadel.

Stage 21 preview

The final stage is a celebration for every competitor, whether it is one of the jersey winners or just to mark a rider’s survival through three gruelling weeks. It will start with the obligatory photo opportunities and raising of champagne glasses en route, until the team of the yellow jersey are afforded the honour of leading the peloton onto the Champs-Élysées. From that point, however, the gloves come off. A few masochists will embark on the obligatory breakaway as the riders cross the finish line for the first of nine passages.

For two men – Mark Cavendish and José Joaquín Rojas – it’s all about the green jersey. Cavendish leads by 15 points, and has been the dominant sprinter, winning four stages, but Rojas has consistently been best of the rest without ever winning a stage. Cavendish will start as favourite, but will know he cannot afford any slip-ups.

The bulk of the points at the intermediate sprint, which takes place after the third crossing of the finishing line on the uphill section near the Arc de Triomphe, will probably be mopped up by a breakaway, leaving the green jersey to be decided as the peloton hurtles towards the finish line for the ninth and last time for what will almost certainly be a bunch sprint. Barring a disaster at the intermediate, Cavendish should only need to finish first or second. Knowing the Manxman, however, he will focus solely on the win, which would give him victory on the Champs-Élysées for the third year running. He is already the only man to win in consecutive years.

Stage 20 result:

1. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) 55:33

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:07

3. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +1:06

4. Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) +1:29

5. Richie Porte (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +1:30

General classification:

1. Cadel Evans (BMC) 83:45:20

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:34

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:30

4. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) +3:20

5. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +3:57

6. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +4:55

7. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +6:05

8. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +7:23

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +8:15

10. Jean-Christope Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) +1:11

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 280 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 265

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 230

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 208

5. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 195

Mountains classification:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 108 pts

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 98

3. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 74

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 58

5. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 56

Links: Tour de France official

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

Is Thomas Voecker a genuine contender for 2012?

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

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

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


Tour de France analysis: Is Thomas Voeckler a genuine contender for 2012?

While France has been celebrating the achievement of Thomas Voeckler holding the yellow jersey for ten days – matching his feat of 2004, but with a smaller initial lead and more tough stages to negotiate – there has always been an acceptance that he was living on borrowed time, even as he continued to surpass everyone’s expectations (including his own) day after day in the mountains. However, as he has continued to redefine the boundaries of his talent, one hopeful question has started to form in many people’s minds. Could Thomas Voeckler win the 2012 Tour de France?

Even the man himself has started to ask himself the question, saying after stage 17:

I never thought I’d be able to ride for GC and be at this level in the third week of the Tour de France. I’ll have to think about that in the future.

The tantalising prospect of a first French winner since the last of Bernard Hinault‘s five wins in 1985 is a compelling one for the home nation. Other than a string of wins in the King of the Mountains competition, they have had little to celebrate in the general classification since Richard Virenque became the last French rider to finish in a podium place in 1997. (And he was promptly discredited the following year in the Festina doping affair.)

But is Voeckler’s outstanding performance on one of the toughest and most varied Tour routes in memory really a sign of the late blossoming of a genuine contender? Or have a variety of other factors flattered to deceive him? Let’s have a look at the arguments both for and against.

Tommy the contender

Voeckler has always been a rider of prodigious talent

1. He’s an accomplished and mature all-round talent

At 32, Voeckler is arguably at the peak of his career in terms of physical condition and experience. He is a good climber, if not necessarily in the top bracket of mountain specialists, as he has demonstrated repeatedly this year. He is one of the best descenders in the peloton. He is vastly experienced at the Tour. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he has a battling mentality which all the top Grand Tour riders must have.

His age need not count against him. He will have just turned 33 when next year’s Tour starts. Lance Armstrong was approaching his 34th birthday when he won the last of his seven Tours. And Carlos Sastre was 33 when he won his only Tour in 2008.

2. He’s a winner

Despite being neither a true climber nor a sprinter, Voeckler has won races consistently throughout his career. His eight wins so far in 2011 already matches his best year ever, and includes two victories at the prestigious Paris-Nice race. As a puncheur, a rider capable of short bursts of acceleration on moderately steep hills, he has had to rely on his wits and ability to read the tactics of a race as much as his talent. A winning mentality is something Voeckler has in abundance.


3. His team is missing its best climber

Pierre Rolland has done a superb job of shepherding Voeckler through the high mountains, never leaving his side and moving to the front to pace his man to the finish when needed. But how much stronger might he have been with Christophe Kern to support him? Kern was in the form of his life before abandoning on stage five, having won the French time trial championship and claimed a mountain stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. Kern should hopefully be back next year.

4. He’s French

It’s a glib statement, but don’t dismiss it. It counts for something in the month of July, and that extra 1% could make all the difference in a race which has in recent years been decided by small margins – four of the last five races have seen the top two separated by less than a minute.

Tommy the pretender

1. He has benefitted from a lack of attacks in the mountains

Although he has had to negotiate a number of particularly challenging stages since taking the yellow jersey, Voeckler has benefitted hugely from a set of circumstances which have seen him able to ride a steady tempo on many of the most difficult climbs, as he does not have the capability to accelerate sharply on the steepest gradients. Setting aside the flat stages 10, 11 and 15, here is how he has performed in the yellow jersey:

  • Stage 12: Samuel Sánchez and Jelle Vanendert disappeared up the road to contest the win, but the only big attack from the yellow jersey group did not arrive until the 2.5km mark when Fränk Schleck flew away. Voeckler was ferried up by Rolland, limiting his loss to Schleck to 40 seconds and conceding smaller amounts to everyone else.
  • Stage 13: All the contenders were happy to cruise in 7½ minutes behind Thor Hushovd’s winning break.
  • Stage 14: The Schleck brothers launched a handful of half-hearted attacks, but the yellow jersey group essentially rode tempo up to Plateau de Beille. Voeckler finished with the favourites.
  • Stage 16: Coped well with the medium mountains. He lost around 20 seconds to Evans, Contador and Sánchez on the final descent, finished with Fränk Schleck and gained time on Basso and Andy Schleck.
  • Stage 17: Dealt comfortably with the first and second category climbs but pushed too hard on the final difficult descent, costing him 27 seconds.
  • Stage 18: Unable to follow Andy Schleck’s stage-winning attack or contribute to the chase until the final kilometre. Everyone was tired at the line, but Voeckler looked most exhausted of all, collapsing over his handlebars barely able to breathe, despite having received a free tow from Cadel Evans up the Galibier.
  • Stage 19: Yo-yoed off the back of the lead group created by Alberto Contador’s early attack, and although he regained position at the base of Alpe d’Huez, he faded and finished 3:22 down, conceding the yellow jersey.

Through the Pyrenees and Alps, Voeckler has rarely been put under major stress – he had simply not been given many opportunities to crack, until yesterday. When he has been pressurised – on both climbs and his favoured descents – he has routinely lost chunks of time. A true yellow jersey contender cannot afford to regularly lose 20-30 seconds, particularly one who lacks the capacity to regain ground in the time trials.

2. His team is too weak

Even allowing for the loss of Kern, Europcar remains one of the weaker teams in the race – let’s not forget they are only a wild-card entrant – with a relatively small budget. They – in particular Pierre Rolland – have performed minor miracles to support Voeckler as much as they have, but they lack a powerhouse such as Jens Voigt or Bernhard Eisel to push them through a three-week race. If Voeckler is to contend, he will need additional firepower.

Van Den Broeck was just one of several GC contenders forced to abandon

3. He has benefitted from a weakened field this year

Bradley Wiggins, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Klöden, Janez Brajkovič, Chris Horner – each of them genuine top ten if not podium contenders – all retired in what has been a surprisingly attritional race for the big names this year. Contador has had niggling injuries and the fatigue of a gruelling Giro in his legs. Ivan Basso has been compromised by his training accident in May. Can Voeckler rely on the stars aligning so perfectly again?

4. He needs to curb his instincts

Ever the puncheur, Voeckler’s natural instinct is to attack and to follow the attacks of others. That’s fine when your main target is stage wins, but if you are playing the long game you need to be more selective with your efforts. Too often, Voeckler has been the first rider to cover his rivals’ moves instead of waiting for someone else to respond. And when the pressure is on, as we saw on the descent from the Côte de Pramartino on stage 17 or yesterday on the Galibier, a true contender needs to know when discretion is the better part of valour and settle for sitting in the pack. In this respect, Voeckler is a bit naive – but he knows that and accepts he needs to improve in this area, which is a good start.

5. He is a mediocre time-trialist

The current trend towards less time-trialling works in his favour, but this remains a distinct weakness for Voeckler, who has never been more than average against the clock. For instance, when competing on this afternoon’s time trial course at the Critérium du Dauphiné – albeit on a wet day – he finished 3:18 down on winner Tony Martin, and more relevantly 3:07 and 1:58 behind Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans respectively. If he is not a credible attacking threat in the high mountains, he needs to improve his time-trialling significantly. Tour winners and podium finishers are generally among the best at one or the other, if not both.

And the verdict is …?

Much though I have always admired Thomas Voeckler’s heart and his not inconsiderable ability as a puncheur and breakaway artist, I don’t see him as a credible race winner – or even a podium finisher – next year. He is certainly capable of a top 10 finish, however. A lack of top-level climbing ability will always hold him back when the racing reaches its greatest intensity in the high mountains.

Coppel is a highly-rated prospect

Indeed, Voeckler may not even be the top French prospect for next year, as a new generation of promising young riders threatens to step up to the next level. 24-year old Jérôme Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) is widely held to be the bright young hope of French cycling. He currently sits in 14th place overall, having ridden solidly if unspectacularly throughout. Still only 25, Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ) is one position and 53 seconds behind Coppel, having led the white jersey competition for two days. Both rode well on Alpe d’Huez yesterday.

And, of course, Europcar’s Pierre Rolland won on the Alpe to catapult himself into both the white jersey and the top ten – a remarkable double achievement given that his primary role has been that of Voeckler’s bodyguard in the mountains. But then Rolland – two months Coppel’s junior – is not a new name on the French scene, having made people sit up and take notice when he won the mountains classification at the Dauphiné in 2008, aged just 21.

Is French cycling on the up again? I would certainly say so, as evidenced by the presence of no fewer than five French riders in the top 15 as of this morning (Jean-Christophe Péraud, at 34, is the grand-daddy of the group.) However, I strongly suspect that 26 years of hurt waiting for the next Hinault will not come to an end next year. But Voeckler – not to mention Coppel, Jeannesson and Rolland – will be terrific fun to watch, no matter what.

Links: Tour de France official website,

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

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

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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