Both race leader Alberto Contador and second-place Andy Schleck have repeatedly said that this year’s Tour de France will be decided on the mythic Col du Tourmalet Thursday. Schleck said it back in the winter when he first saw the course details; and he repeated it Wednesday at his highly informative press conference, saying he was confident he could get the one-minute-plus he needs to take the yellow jersey — and keep it after Saturday’s time trial at Bordeaux.
The million-dollar question is: How can the 25-year-old Luxembourger gain 60 seconds or more on the Tourmalet?
If it were a one-on-one hill climb between the Tour’s two leaders up the 18.6km-long mountain road in perfect conditions then there would probably be very little difference in their times. But Thursday dawned wet and cool in the Pyrénées after a thunderstorms rumbled through the mountains all night — it could be as cold as 47 degrees Fahrenheit or 8 degrees Celsius atop the Tourmalet. And before reaching the foot of the finish climb, the Tour peloton will have already raced for more than four hours, including crossing two challenging mountain passes.
Those factors enter into the equation, as do the relative strengths of their two teams. On the climbing stages, Contador has been able to rely on just two Astana teammates, Alexander Vinokourov and Dani Navarro, both of whom should be able to pace their leader on the lower slopes of the Tourmalet.
Schleck is hoping that his injured Saxo Bank teammate Jens Voigt will be able to assist Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady and Niki Sørensen in the valleys and up the canyon that leads to Luz-St. Sauveur where the road turns left and the gradient steepens from 4 to 7 percent. Then, his climbers Chris Anker Sørensen and Jakob Fuglsang are likely to take over and pull Schleck for at least the opening 5km of the true Tourmalet climb.
This is where decision time comes. Through the village of Barrèges, 13km from the summit, the road tilts straight up at a 9 percent grade for 2km. It was on such a distance, on L’Alpe d’Huez in 2001 that Lance Armstrong broke away from Jan Ullrich and took two minutes out of him on the iconic alpine climb.
Schleck says he likes the Tourmalet better because there are very few switchbacks, which allows him to make his preferred steady climbing pace. But can the Luxembourger sustain an attack at the pace he needs for more than 30 minutes?
We have an exact case to call upon: the aborted attack and chase Schleck made when his chain derailed on the Port de Balès last Monday. The Saxo Bank team claims that he was stopped 50 seconds before getting his chain back on and starting to chase, while his deficit on an attacking Contador at the Balès summit after a 3km chase was 15 seconds.
If Schleck can repeat that effort, he can gain just over 10 seconds per kilometer on the race leader; so assuming he breaks clear in Barrèges, he would be able to gain 10 x 13 = 130 seconds = 2 minutes 10 seconds by the summit. Perhaps a gain of 5 seconds per kilometer is more realistic, which would yield the minimum one minute he says he needs to hold off Contador in the Bordeaux time trial.
Even more realistic is an attack starting on the next very steep section, a long straight stretch of 8-9 percent grades before the famous left turn at a little stone bridge, the Pont de Gaubie bridge. That would give him 8km to gain a minute or more, and if he can raise his pace to 100 percent from the 80 percent effort he says he has been making so far in the climbs, he could make up 7.5 seconds per kilometer, giving him that one-minute gain.
So watch for the action in both of these key places, with 13km and 8km to go. But the main factor is the relative fatigue of the two protagonists in the cold, wet conditions that are forecast. Contador, who lives near Madrid, admits he doesn’t like racing in wet weather, even when it’s warm, whereas Schleck spends most of his off-season training in the rain and cold of the Luxembourg hills.
The race up the Tourmalet will show which of these theories is correct — unless Contador really has the same fire he displayed in 2009 and then this whole question is moot.