Battle for Tour de France victory down to 57 seconds
Andy Schleck, the runner-up from the past two years, is leading the overall standings. But Australian Cadel Evans could overtake him before Sunday's finale in Paris.
A day after an inspired solo effort launched Andy Schleck back into contention for the Tour de France lead, the Luxembourger went one step further: He captured the yellow jersey worn by the race's overall leader.
With a calm, determined ride up the diabolical climb of Alpe dâ€™Huez, the 26-year-old put himself into position to win his first-ever Tour during todayâ€™s Stage 19, won by Franceâ€™s Pierre Rolland.
Schleck heads into tomorrowâ€™s penultimate stage with nearly a minute lead over his closest rivals. One of them is his brother and Leopard Trek teammate, FrĂ¤nk Schleck. But FrĂ¤nk, currently sitting in second, is not expected to try and overtake Andy this weekend.
The focus instead is on the third-placed rider: the mercurial Australian Cadel Evans, who managed to finish with the Schlecks on Alpe dâ€™Huez, despite suffering a mechanical failure during the stage. Evans specializes in the format for tomorrow's race, an individual time trial in which cyclists ride alone against the clock.
â€ś[Frank and I] are 1 and 2 â€“ I donâ€™t think we could have done any more,â€ť said Andy Schleck. â€śAnd I think one minute is a lot in the time trial, even if Cadel is the specialist.â€ť
Schleck is considered to be weaker than Evans in the time trial discipline, but he has improved his time trialing since a dismal performance in the 2009 Tour, when he lost 1 minute and 44 seconds to Alberto Contador in the final time trial at Annecy.
â€śIâ€™m going to be very motivated with the yellow jersey on my shoulders,â€ť Schleck said.
Evansâ€™ deficit of 57 seconds behind Schleck isnâ€™t insurmountable. During the final individual time trial in 1989, American Greg LeMond erased a 50-second deficit and ended up beating Franceâ€™s Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. It was the closest overall finish in Tour history. (Editor's note: the original version of this story misstated Evans's deficit.)
Schleck's rollercoaster week in the Alps
After Wednesdayâ€™s Stage 17, he was more than two minutes and a half behind then-leader Thomas Voeckler.
Dissatisfied with his performance and the stageâ€™s treacherous descent, he lashed out at Tour organizers.
â€śI think the course was badly chosen,â€ť he said. â€śWe don't want to see riders crashing or taking risks.â€ť
Two days later, his tune has changed. Heâ€™s leading the Tour de France for the first time since last yearâ€™s Stage 15, when he suffered a mechanical breakdown and Alberto Contador controversially took advantage.
â€śItâ€™s always a dream to have the yellow jersey and itâ€™s a reality now,â€ť said Schleck. â€śBut I know this isnâ€™t finished until the day after tomorrow.â€ť
Contador attacked again today, though in a more sporting fashion. He and Schleck were seen during the stage exchanging glances and talking.
With about 7.5 miles left on the steep switchbacks of Alpe Dâ€™Huez, Contador launched himself up the mountain.
But it was too little, too late for the two-time defending champion â€“ he only picked up 34 seconds on his rival. A year after taking his third Tour de France title, it appears Contador will not even make the podium, which features the top three places.
First French win on iconic Alpe d'Huez stage since '86
After wearing the yellow jersey for 10 stages, Franceâ€™s Thomas Voeckler â€“ who achieved the same feat in 2004 â€“ was unable to keep up with the Schlecks and Evans on Alpe dâ€™Huez.
Appearing exhausted and breathing heavily at the finish line during a French TV interview, he went through a list of thank-yous like an actor winning an Oscar.
â€śThis is for all of the teammates on my Europcar team, especially,â€ť he said.
There was silver lining for Europcar today, however â€“ they exchanged the yellow jersey for white, the jersey worn by the best young rider. Pierre Rolland, who won todayâ€™s stage, is now leading that category.
Remarkably, Rolland was the first Frenchman to win at the famed Alpe dâ€™Huez since Bernard Hinault in 1986.
â€śGrowing up I watched Lance Armstrong and [Marco] Pantani climbing Alpe dâ€™Huez,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s really a great moment.â€ť