Stage 19 was to be all about that dreaded name – L’Alpe d’Huez. 13.8 km of asphalt spaghetti draped across an alpine mountain, it was celebrating its 100th year of terrorising the peloton. A 100 years of making grown men cry, most with agony, but a very select few with sheer joy.
Pierre Rolland was the latest to join that élite latter group, as he claimed the most famous victory of his career. Attacking late on the climb, he pumped big gears, leaving three-time winner Alberto Contador and Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez in his wake. At the finish line waited not only a white jersey, but also membership into a revered club of riders to have mastered the 21 steps of “the devil’s staircase”.
That euphemism comes from the leg sapping 21 hairpin bends that make up the climb to the ski-resort at the summit, and Rolland knew it all too well, “I knew at turn one, I could push the big chainring early on this climb at such a pace because I did it many times in training. This is a stage that I’ve watched dozens of times on video, with Armstrong, Pantani… I studied their cadence. And now it’s me who has won! It will take me a little time before I realize what I’ve done.”
Pierre also brought joy and glory to his nation, with the first home victory in this year’s Tour. His team has already done France proud with Thomas Voeckler holding to yellow against all odds, and a lot of credit for that goes to young Rolland. Today’s winner has been the super-domestique for Voeckler all Tour long, guiding the maillot jaune up slopes that not many had expected him to survive.
Today though Voeckler had realised by the second climb of the day that the show was over for him. Unable to keep pace with Contador and Andy Schleck, he set Rolland free, ““I said I wanted to do everything possible to defend the yellow jersey of Thomas but on the climb of the Galibier, he told me, ‘Seize your chance, don’t worry about me’. This is also where I see that he is a great champion, one who was able to tell me to go at the right time,” said Pierre.
Voeckler fought valiantly, screaming, grimacing, dancing over the handle bars, doing his best as he has all of the ten days in yellow. But today even his indefatigable spirit and immense will power were not enough to protect the maillot jaune. Maybe he panicked and made a mistake when he tried to chase the leaders solo up the Galibier. Common sense would have suggested for him to hold back and wait for his team, and let then nurture him back to the leading pack.
Some are commenting he did not have that confidence in his team, but I for one don’t buy that. It is the nature of the man, he has always been a fighter. In fact its this very virtue of his that has made him dodge the favourites for 10 days each in 2004 and this year. He is an all or nothing person, when thrown a challenge he goes all guns blazing, no thinking and tactics for him, just pure guts.
Another gutsy rider on the day was defending champion Alberto Contador. The Spaniard blew up all calculations as he attacked within 15km of the start, early on the climb of Col du Télégraphe. Among the top contenders only Evans and Andy Schleck could match Contador’s multiple accelerations. Voeckler, Schleck Sr and Ivan Basso, were all dropped once Alberto began his trademark dance on the pedals.
And then disaster struck for Cadel Evans. He had to dismount thrice due to mechanical troubles, and eventually changed to a new bike from his team car, losing over a minute to the Contador group in the process. It took him one and a half mountains of effort to catch up with the lead group and save his Tour, as he had chased Andy Schleck only a day before.
At the front of the race Alberto seemed to be a man on a mission. He had cracked on the climb of the Galibier on thursday, and had himself declared the challenge for yellow all but finished. Today was then about redemption, to show everyone that the Spanish bull had not laid arms. He was doing most of the hard work ahead as Andy was content to stay in his slipstream, knowing all too well Contador was not his main rival now.
But once they knew Evans was pulling back, Andy did share the workload, though that was not to be enough. The Australian caught up with the leaders near the 25km banner, and though his team were instrumental in the chase, it was mostly a solo effort by the BMC leader. Once the favourites were all together, the group called truce for a while.
That peace was short-lived, broken by Pierre Rolland right on the foot of last climb. He pumped ahead knowing all too well the leaders would not be bothered to chase him back, Contador though had other plans. As on the Télégraphe he surged ahead viciously and this time no one responded. Alberto was too far behind in time to bother the Schlecks or Evans and all he sought was a victory on the hallowed summit.
He seemed to be going well as he overtook Pierre, with his form of yore that even the best find hard to challenge, nevertheless compatriot Sánchez set on a chase with Rolland. The Frenchman was being the tactician, using Sánchez to pull him up the slopes towards Contador. Despite furious gestures from Sánchez, Rolland refused to share the workload, till they caught up with the defending champion.
Once they did, Rolland almost immediately jumped on to a big gear and being relatively fresher of three, raced ahead to the stage victory. It was a justified reward, as Rolland has been a revelation all Tour long. He also moved into the lead of the best young rider classification and is being seen as probably the next French winner of the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Sánchez also did not go empty-handed for all his effort up the Alpe d’Huez and finished second on the day between Rolland and Conatador. His biggest reward was earning the polka dot jersey for the king of the mountains. With no mountain points on offer in the last two stages, he will carry that till Paris, a remarkable achievement for a small team like Eukaltel-Easkadi.
Behind them Evans tried a few attacks, and a final dash to the line but was unable to shake off the two Schleck brothers. That means he heads for the Individual Time Trial of Saturday in third place, 57 seconds behind Andy Schleck who inherited yellow from Voeckler (who eventually finished 3’22″ behind) at the end of the day.
Stage 20 is a 42km solo race against the clock in Grenoble. No team mates, no shields behind attackers, just pure man and machine against the wind. The route is rolling and will not suit a pure specialist, especially as it comes after three gruelling days in the mountains. Evans is the clear favourite here compared to the Schlecks, but so was he in 2008 against Sastre, and was not able to turn the tables on that day.
Nerves, luck, crowd support and pure motivation are among the several factors that will come into play today in addition to personal ability of course. Deciding a three-week, 3400km long Tour in a short 42kms on the penultimate day is like deciding a marathon with a 100m sprint, but that is the unpredictability of sport. 57 seconds is the magical figure separating the two challengers, and as the great Eddy Merckx would say, ” It’s a lot and it is nothing.” So till tomorrow then…
Jersey holders: General Classification: Maillot Jaune – Andy Schleck Andy Schleck – 82h 48’ 43” Maillot Vert – Mark Cavendish Frank Schleck – 82h 49’ 36” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Samuel Sánchez Cadel Evans – 82h 49’ 40” Maillot Blanc – Pierre Rolland