Andy Schleck wins, Contador cracks, Voeckler keeps yellow by the seat of his pants
Andy Schleck wins, Tour de France 2011, stage 18
After two days of whinging about downhill run-ins, the Schleck brothers put in an altogether more impressive performance to scoop the first two places of today's stage of the Tour de France.
Having struck out on the Col d'Izoard with over 60km to go, Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) swept up remnants of the day's early breakaway then soloed to a heroic victory at the Tour's highest ever finish atop the 2,645m Col du Galibier.
As all his rivals sat and looked at each other, Schleck had extended his lead to over four minutes during his escape. Having started the day 2-36 down on Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) it put him in the virtual race lead.
At points the stalemate amongst the rest of the contenders got painful to watch. But then realising that it was perhaps he who was both the strongest and had the most to lose, Cadel Evans (BMC) took to the front and for almost the remainder of the race led a pursuit up the 22.8km final climb.
With Andy Schleck slowing near the end of his ride and Voeckler carefully shadowing Evans to the summit of the Galibier, the Frenchman grimaced his way to the finish line to save his yellow jersey by a mere 15 seconds.
Having played a ticket collector's role ever since his brother had attacked, it was Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek) who was able to accelerate on the steep ramp to the finish to lead in the dribs and drabs of Evans' chase group. Evans, Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Voeckler, Pierre Roland (Europcar) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) all trickled in close behind but there were some other big names missing.
Most noticeable of them was Alberto Contador who'd been shed from the diminishing huddle with 2.5km remaining. Initially dropping 25 metres, he clambered back onto the group. But it was a desperate effort inappropriate to the thinning air of the high Alps.
No sooner than he'd regained the group, the Spaniard was going backwards again, waving goodbye to any hope of defending his overall title.
At the line he'd lost nearly four minutes on the stage winner and dropped to 7th in the overall ranking, 4-44 behind Voeckler.
Other big losers today were Samuel Sanchez and Rigoberto Uran who surrended his white jersey to Cofidis' Rein Taaramae.
Now going into the final mountain stage of the Tour, there are four riders within likely contention of the overall win.
Voeckler leads Andy Schleck by a quarter of a minute with Frank Schleck at 1-08. But with a 42.5km time trial still to come on Saturday, Cadel Evans perhaps remains the best placed at 1-12. The fifth rider in the rankings is Cunego at 3-46.
Cavendish keeps Green
Despite coming across the line outside the time limit, Mark Cavendish maintained his lead in the green jersey competition. Along with 86 other riders who finished in the same group - including Philippe Gilbert - he was reinstated in the race. However, this didn't come without forfeit.
Reinstatement costs riders the same number of green jersey points that the winner of the affected stage is awarded. In this instance that was 20 points.
Because Jose Rojas finished inside the time limit, this has effectively reduced Cavendish's lead in the green jersey competition to 15 points.
If the same scenario occurs again tomorrow, the points competition could come down to a very interesting finale in Paris.
How it happened
The inevitable day's early break went in the first 40km, as the race took in flattish Italian roads south from the overnight stop in Pinerolo towards the intermediate sprint at Verzulo. Eventually comprising 19 riders when the group settled into shape, they snapped up all the green jersey points on offer.
In the move were Maxime Monfort, Joost Posthuma (both Leopard Trek), Ruben Perez, Pablo Urtasun (both Euskaltel), Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Ramuna Navardauskas (Garmin-Cervelo), Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana), Markey Irizar (Radioshack), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Nicolas Roche (Ag2r), Dries Devenyns (Quick Step), Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Danilo Hondo (Lampre), Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun), Mickael Delage (FDJ), Marcus Burghardt (BMC) and Egor Silin (Katusha).
Heading west after the sprint, the next 50km was uphill, with an increasingly steepening gradient taking the race over 2,744m high hors categorie Col Agnel.
Inglinsky lead the break across the summit of the 2011 Tour's highest point to scoop a 5,000 Euro prize.
Reduced to nine by the time they hit the approach to the Col d'Izoard, they held a five minute lead over the main pack which had seen various tentative sorties.
As well as the one time GC contenders who'd fallen on hard times and opportunists hoping they may just get a lucky slip, there was also briefly a flirtatious - and potentially suicidal - move by a group that contained yellow jersey Voeckler, king of the mountains Jelle Vanendert and Gilbert.
Although that may have been too early for the proper action to have started, it was still with at least an hour and a half's racing to go that Andy Schleck burst out of the main contenders' bunch.
With no rival responding, he forged his gap over the Izoard's famous Casse Déserte, and crossed the summit with a two minute margin on his rivals.
Once again Kazakh Igliskiy had led the race over the climb and ploughed down the descent with a 1-50 lead. From the remnants of the breakaway group, Montfort sat up and waited for team mate Schleck, thereafter pacing him down the descent to sweep up Silin, Devenyns, Roche and eventually the Astana rider as the road turned back upwards again for the 23km slog up the Col du Galibier.
After exhaustive work from Montfort and Devenyns (the latter demonstrating some sort of vested interest in helping Leopard-Trek), Schleck took to the front and dispatched the remainder of his hangers-on.
Tour de France 2011, stage 18: Pinerolo-Col du Galibier, 200.5km
1. Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek in 6-07-56
2. Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek at 2-07
3. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC at 2-15
4. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 2-18
5. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Europcar at 2-21
6. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar at 2-27
7. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 2-33
8. Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis at 3-22
9. Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Cervelo at 3-25
10. Ryder Hesdejal (Can) Garmin-Cervelo at 3-31
Overall classification after stage 18
1. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Europcar in 79-34-06
2. Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek at 15 sec
3. Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek at 1-08
4. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC at 1-12
5. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 3-46
6. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 3-46
7. Alberto Contador (Esp) Saxo Bank-Sungard at 4-44
8. Samuel Sanchez (Esp) Euskatel-Euskatel at 5-20
9. Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Cervelo at 7-08
10. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 9-27
Andy Schleck wins after a solid solo attack
Cadel Evans chases Andy Schleck, with Thomas Voeckler just behind
Mark Cavendish was one of over 80 riders to finish outside the time cut. Although all riders were kept in the race they were docked 20 points
Andy Schleck celebrates on the podium
Tour de France 2011: Related links
Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index