What does it take to win the Tour de France? Some say that you got to beat the best, to suffer more than the worst and yet not wince, to be an all round rider and not just a specialist. While all the above may be true, Andy Schleck showed us yesterday that for aspiring a victory in Le Tour, you first have to beat yourself and answer the challenge thrown by your own body. Only then shall these mountains bow to your will, and hopefully the riders will follow.
Such was the majesty of Andy’s attack that in a stage meant to separate the great from the best, he rose higher leaving greats behind to join the legends. By the end of the day he was proudly standing on a podium higher (in pure altitude terms) than any winner of the Tour ever has. His incredible performance on stage 17 does not guarantee overall victory, but does make sure that his feat goes down into history books to be admired for ages.
This was one of those classic attacks, not seen since the days of Eddy Merckx, and one which Charly Gaul – the last winner from Schleck’s home country Luxembourg – would be proud of. As fate would have it, Merckx was there in person to applaud Schleck’s efforts and give him a nice little pep-talk from a car pulling alongside the climber in the final stages. Not that Andy was lacking any motivation, but this would have been like a psychological shot of testosterone!
The sheer audacity of Schleck’s plan is understood considering that when he attacked 60km from the finish, not one commentator, nor any online expert, not even the top riders and their team directors considered it worthy of a serious challenge. Some ridiculed, others laughed and the riders themselves continued with contempt towards the aggressor’s move.
Leave aside the heroics for a while though, and it becomes clear that this was not a move out of pure bravura, but one that took birth in the confines of team Leopard Trek‘s hotel a night ago. It’s no coincidence that Posthuma and Monfort were part of the initial breakaway, conveniently available to guide their team leader right when he needed them at the Izoard.
This was tactical genius, the complete team plan where every member played his role to perfection. Elder brother Frank was the sniper covering Andy’s attack squad. He spent all day shadowing Contador and Evans, holding them down and ready to pounce for a counter-attack if things turned ugly for Schleck Jr. It did not come to that, but pounce he did meters off the finish line to claim second place on the day behind his brother (making it the first ever one-two in Tour history for their home nation).
Monfort’s effort was probably the vital link in the plan as he protected Schleck from the strong headwinds down the long and tricky descent of Col d’Izoard. Going downhill is the acknowledged weakness of the Schleck brothers and it was upto Monfort to guide his leader, providing him with the best lines and drafts on the way down. He performed better than expectations, making Andy pull further ahead from the better descenders behind him.
This was the Tour’s Queen stage, as it is called, featuring the highest point of the race at 2,774m summit of Col d’Agnel. Keeping true to the honour of such a significant stage, it awarded us with more heroics in a single day than the entire Harry Potter series. Apart from the man of the day, it was Cadel Evans who shone brightest as he toiled to pull the young Luxembourgeois back.
Once the top contenders had realised they had underestimated Andy, someone had to lead the chase. Cadel started it, and with lack of any help from the others, gritted his teeth and decided to do it all on his own. He was visibly irritated as no one offered any help at the head of the pack, but continued despite his frustration, towing the rest on his rear wheel. Ofcourse Frank was not expected to offer any help – he was there precisely to disrupt the chase – but the Australian certainly deserved more assistance from Contador and Voeckler.
Despite Voeckler’s reluctance to do the hard work – as Evans saw it – the Frenchmen put in one of the sternest performances of the day. His expression at the finish line told a story his suffering to save the yellow jersey, which the Europcar rider did by a very narrow margin. All seemed lost as he cracked mid-way through the Galibier, but when told that Andy was slowing near the top, the Tour’s current leader ignored all the pain and rode a big gear, saving fractions with every turn of the pedal.
Andy Schleck won the award for the most aggressive rider of the day, but for anyone who would have watched only the last 15 minutes of the stage, it was all about Voeckler’s unbelievable resilience. He did it to Armstrong in 2004, and is doing it all over again this year, staying in yellow beyond the wildest expectations.
Surprisingly the only rider to have cracked on the day was Alberto Contador. The three-time winner and defending champion, instigator of the chaos on stage 16, was completely off his usual form yesterday. He never looked in trouble at any point, till finally cracking within the last 3km. He crossed the line in 15th place and this little slip-up cost him precious 3’50” over Schleck and 1’35” over Evans.
The other sufferers (relatively speaking as everyone suffers on a day like this) were the sprinters, whose conundrum evident by the fact that maillot vert Mark Cavendish finished outside the cut-off time, entailing disqualification from the race. Thankfully for him and 77 other riders, the manic pace set by Andy Schleck ensured more than 20% of the Tour riders could not make it within the cut-off time. Hence the rules permitted the commissaires to save the grupetto from capital punishment.
Escaping disqualification was certainly good news, but the late comers were docked points based on their time over the cut-off limit. Cavendish lost 20 points, bringing down his lead over Jose Rojas to just fifteen. Unfortunately the sprinters cannot look for much respite from today either. Forget them, there would be many top riders fidgeting at the thought of the three major climbs today, as the organisers have designed this route precisely to cause cracks in the field. At a mere 109km, it is one the shorter stages this year (except the time trials), but right up there with the most brutal we have seen so far.
There are hardly any flats to talk of and the category-one ascent of Col du Télégraphe is almost dwarfed by the giants ahead. The real challenge of the day begins as riders renegotiate the Galibier, this time from its harder side and finish on the summit of Alpe d’Huez – a climb steeped in Tour lore, which has made as many legends as it as destroyed.
Last time these 21 hair pins were part of Le Tour was in 2008, and were witness to the move that won Carlos Sastre the tour. Incidentally the Spaniard was then leading team CSC Saxo Bank, which included both Schleck brothers, and the rider who lost out that day (finishing second in the Tour) – a certain Cadel Evans.
The GC table has been shaken yet again, and though Voeckler is still unmoved off his perch, he is on the brink. The Schelcks lying at No 2 & 3 have tasted blood and Evans is not far behind. Andy might move into yellow today, but he knows the 57 seconds he has over the Australian are too close for comfort considering the individual time trial of Saturday.
So the Schlecks have to gain more time, but their need is remotely not as urgent as of Alberto Contador. After yesterday’s debacle he has to fight for serious time, though maybe more for pride. This has been one of the most unpredictable Tours in recent history, so I won’t risk making a prediction, but rest assured there will be tremors in-keeping with the traditions of L ‘Alpe d’Huez – the ultimate killing ground.
Against my usual habit, I will not finish this report with a preview of the next stage, but the defining moment of this one. No prizes for guessing that its the “Schleck moment” which prompted @lancearmstrong to tweet, “Watching the #tourdefrance. Gutsy and smart riding by @andy_schleck and his team. Fun to watch.” Fun it was for us, for the great man himself it was a feeling of redemption and glory. So till tomorrow then…
Jersey holders: General Classification: Maillot Jaune – Thomas Voeckler Thomas Voeckler – 79h 34’ 06” Maillot Vert – Mark Cavendish Andy Schleck – 79h 34’ 21” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Jelle Vanendert Frank Schleck – 79h 35’ 14” Maillot Blanc – Rein Taaramae