Stage 18, the Queen Stage of this year’s Tour de France, was a 6+-hour slugfest over 3 Hors Categorie climbs in the Alps–the Agnel, the Izoard, and finally, the monstrous Galibier.
1. Andy Schleck’s attacked on the Izoard with about 60km to go, gaining 2 minutes over the yellow jersey group by the top of the climb and extending it to 4:25 on the descent and the early slopes of the Galibier. Schleck’s move seemed to catch everyone off guard, as there was little to no effort to join or haul back the man who many seemed to have written off as an overall contender.
2. It’s a shame other men in the yellow jersey group didn’t find Andy’s “all or nothing” attack enticing, as men like Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego, and Tom Danielson all would have benefitted—and perhaps dragged themselves into podium contention—had they tried to follow the acceleration.
3. Andy’s attack confounded many. Was it too early? Would he lose his advantage on the descent? Was he going for the win or was he setting it up for Frank? But as confusing as it was, this was clearly a well-planned attack: Leopard-Trek had both Maxime Monfort and Joost Posthuma in the day’s big break, and Posthuma shelled the teammates of Andy’s rivals up the Izoard, while Monfort saved energy to work with Andy between the Izoard and the Galibier, maximizing Andy’s advantage before the headwind set in.
4. And perhaps most impressive—especially for someone so criticized for his lack of tactical nous in the days prior—was the timing of the move. Andy’s attack gave him an advantage before the head winds of the final 35 kilometers. No matter how hard they tried, these winds prevented the already-tired yellow jersey group from making any serious headway.
5. Might we see a similar move tomorrow, only with Frank going on the offensive? Andy will certainly be depleted following his efforts today (he barely made it across the line); an attack from Frank might crack the few remaining contenders while giving Andy a free ride to the finish. While perhaps putting Frank into yellow over Andy, such a move just might give Leopard Trek the first two spots on the podium in Paris—and significant buffers heading into Saturday’s time trial.
6. Behind Schleck, BMC’s Cadel Evans took the reigns with 10km to go, as the yellow jersey group stared at one another. Evans’ move looked risky at first, but despite the presence of Europcar’s Voeckler and Rolland and Liquigas’ Basso and Szmyd, it was the isolated Australian who brought the gap down from 4 minutes to less than 3 by the end of the stage. Clearly Evans is the man Leopard Trek needs to fear the most over the next two days.
7. In the final kilometer, the yellow jersey group splintered as Frank Schleck attacked to gain a few seconds on Cadel Evans. Behind, Voeckler’s face was a curtain of pain. He crossed the line with a fist-punch when he saw that he held the yellow jersey by :16. He all but collapsed after the finish, reminiscent of Stephen Roche’s incredible climb up La Plagne to keep his advantage in 1987. Expect Tommy V. to not go down without a fight tomorrow.
8. As for Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador, he just didn’t have it today. After a few failed turns out the front brought little results, the Spaniard was content to hang at the back of the yellow jersey, doing his best to keep pace before finally giving in. While many love to hate on Contador, he and Voeckler are really the only overall contenders in this year’s Tour to have a significant number of days thus far this season. At least he’ll have one less race to worry about being disqualified from once the WADA/UCI appeal is heard.
9. Italian’s Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego once again finished at the top of the day’s results. At this point, both looked destined for unexciting top-10 finishes. Close enough to the top to still be considered outside contenders, neither looks to be a favorite for tomorrow’s stage to Alpe d’Huez.
10. In addition to Tom Danielson’s 9th-place finish today ( a result that keeps him firmly inside the top-10 for now),Garmin-Cervelo’s Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde finished 10th and 12th, putting the squad in the driver’s seat for the Tour’s 50,000 Euro team prize.
11. Moving to the green jersey competition, Movistar’s JJ Rojas expressed his team’s intentions to attack Mark Cavendish in the mountains, hoping to put him outside the time cut and Rojas into the green jersey. Today, they were successful—sorta. Rojas finished within the time cut, while many riders did not it including Cavendish, Sylvain Chavanel, Philippe Gilbert, Tyler Farrar and enough important names that the race jury decided to allow the riders to continue, but docking them points. As a result, Cavendish still holds green but by only 15 points over Rojas. Look for tomorrow’s intermediate sprint and Sunday’s final stage to keep this competition going right to the wire.
12. Sky’s Rigoberto Uran started the stage in the white jersey as the Tour’s Best Young Rider, and Sky mounted a strong defense of his position, covering him well in the mountains, and pacing him back on when he fell off the pace. Unfortunately, the Galibier was one climb too much for Colombian; Pierre Rolland—a more than deserving recipient—took over the lead in the competition.
13. Looking over the GC quickly, Cadel Evans is outside of the top-3 for the first time this Tour, but is in a strong place as the best time trialist among the top-4. The top ten is as follows:
1. Thomas Voeckler
2. Andy Schleck at :15
3. Frank Schleck at 1:08
4. Cadel Evans at 1:12
5. Damiano Cunego 3:46
6. Ivan Basso s.t.
7. Alberto Contador at 4:44
8. Samuel Sanchez at 5:20
9. Tom Danielson at 7:08
10. Jean-Christophe Perraud at 9:27
14. Tomorrow’s stage brings another ascent of the Galibier followed by Alpe d’Huez. The last chance for time to be gained and lost before Saturday’s time trial, expect to see Leopard Trek do it’s best to put Cadel Evans into difficulty—if they don’t burn themselves out in the process. As for the stage win, Sylvester Szmyd, Robert Gesink, and Alberto Contador are all men to watch, while Lotto’s Jelle Vanendert and Samuel Sanchez will do their best to hold off Andy Schleck for the polka dot jersey.