“The Tour is won on the Alpe,” wrote French journalist Jean-Paul Vespini in his 2008 book of the same name. But despite Friday’s hugely exciting stage, which finished atop the mythical mountain of Alpe d’Huez, it looks like this year’s Tour will be won on the roads around Grenoble in Saturday’s time trial.
It was the end of the affair for Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, who lost his yellow jersey to Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck on the 109.5km route between Modane Valfréjus and Alpe d’Huez, but with Cadel Evans (BMC) now in third place overall, just 57 seconds down on the young Luxemburger, with Andy’s older brother Frank now in second, just four seconds ahead of Evans, there is all still to play for in ‘the race of truth’ on the penultimate stage of the race over 42.5km.
Early on in what was a relatively short, but very sharp, 19th stage, things had looked very different indeed. First Frank Schleck, then Evans, then Voeckler lost touch with the head of the race after Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador decided to attack on the day’s first climb, the Col du Télégraphe.
The Spaniard was clearly going to at least try to make up some of the time he lost when he cracked on the final climb on Thursday. An uncomfortable-looking Evans made a bike change, and at this point it looked very much as though the Tour was slipping through his fingers in favour of Andy Schleck.
By the time the race had moved on to the Col du Galibier, with Contador and Andy Schleck at the head of the race having joined up with the day’s early breakaway, Voeckler was bravely chasing on his own – a lone man in yellow, trapped between the head of the race and the Evans group, which also contained Frank Schleck, Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) and Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez.
Voeckler got within just 23 seconds of Contador and Andy Schleck at one point, but had soon been hoovered up by what was left of ‘the bunch’. Now it was a case of pursuing the two favourites at the front of the race, with Frank Schleck along for the ride.
Indeed, it all came back together for the leading riders on the descent of the Galibier, but as the final climb up to Alpe d’Huez loomed into view, Europcar’s Pierre Rolland attacked, chased by Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal, who was keen to keep his team at the top of the teams’ classification.
Voeckler lost contact again on the lower slopes; should Rolland, Voeckler’s faithful lieutenant during much of this Tour, have waited for him rather than pursuing his own stage-win and white-jersey dreams?
Regardless, Contador then took it upon himself to attack again, blasting past Rolland and Hesjedal, and looking very much as though he might take the stage win as consolation for things not having gone the defending champion’s way this year. With 10km still to go, he had a 40-second gap over the chasers, but Evans and the Schlecks seemed content to watch each other.
Huge, raucous, drunken crowds hemmed the riders in as they strove ever upwards, with Contador lashing out at one who got too close for comfort at one point.
Sanchez decided to give chase, and worked with Rolland to pull back Contador, which the duo succeeded in doing with 3km left to race – where the start of the crowd barriers made things somewhat safer for the riders.
Back down the slope, Lampre’s Damiano Cunego, knowing that he may lose a top-five finish to Contador after Saturday’s time trial, decided to give it a go, with Danielson, Ag2r’s Jean-Christophe Peraud and Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) still bravely hanging on to the Schleck group.
Rolland put in one last, big effort up ahead with just over a kilometre to go, and this time neither of the Spaniards could respond.
The Frenchman took a fine stage win – France’s first this year – while a resurgent Contador, who had been active all day, put time into the favourites to finish third on the stage behind his Spanish compatriot Sanchez.
France went mad for Rolland, who now assumes the lead in the young rider’s competition from Cofidis’s Rein Taaramae, but the real war was being waged further down the mountain where the Schlecks failed – or were simply unable – to shake Evans.
Evans tried to take the race by the scruff of the neck himself, attacking the Luxemburger brothers with 2.5km to go, with only Andy capable of reacting. And as Frank Schleck slowly made his way back to Evans and his younger brother, with 1.5km to go, Evans went again, and appeared to have a small gap coming into the final few hundred metres. However, all three riders were credited with the same time on the line.
Sanchez managed to sew up the polka-dot jersey for himself with his second place at the summit finish, while Rolland also appears to have made the white jersey his, providing he can hold off Taaramae for 1-33 in Saturday’s TT.
The battle for the green jersey, however, is far from over, with both Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) and José Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) failing to make the time cut today, but being reinstated due to the size of the group they finished with. As a result, both will now be docked 20 points as a punishment – the number of green-jersey points available for today’s winner – which means the gap between them remains at 15 points in Cavendish’s favour.
Early green-jersey rival Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) made the time cut, so wasn’t docked any points, and is therefore at least in theory still in contention, now lying 50 points behind Cavendish, with a maximum of 20 points available to the winner of Saturday’s time trial, 20 points for Sunday’s intermediate sprint, and 45 for the winner of that final stage on the Champs-Elysées.
Sunday will merely be a procession for whoever is in yellow after Saturday’s time trial. For now, that man is Andy Schleck, while his brother sits 53 seconds behind him overall on Friday evening.
But Australia’s Cadel Evans looks like he might have the measure of them both on Saturday against the clock – with 42.5km to make up just under a minute on the roads around Grenoble.
Tour de France 2011, stage 19: Modane Valfréjus-Alpe d’Huez, 109.5km
1. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar in 3-13-25
2. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 14sec
3. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Sungard at 23 sec
4. Peter Velits (Slo) HTC-Highroad at 57 sec
5. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC
6. Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Vacansoleil-DCM
7. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-ISD
8. Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek
9. Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek all same time
10. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Cervelo at 1-15
Overall classification after stage 19
1. Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek in 82-48-43
2. Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek at 53 sec
3. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC at 57 sec
4. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Europcar at 2-10
5. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-ISD at 3-31
6. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Sungard at 3-55
7. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4-22
8. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 4-40
9. Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Cervelo at 7-11
10. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar at 8-57
Thomas De Gendt and Peter Velits
Frank Schleck leads Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans
Pierre Rolland taks the stage win
Andy Schleck in the yellow jersey
Tour de France 2011: Related links
Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index