We have grown used to multi-time Tour de France champions winning the final time trial. That was the case with Alberto Contador last year; Lance Armstrong did it at six of his seven winning Tours; Miguel Induráin and Bernard Hinault did it four times out of five, and Eddy Merckx five out of five.
Contador has a chance to repeat his 2009 feat on Saturday in what is a very different type of time trial than last year’s — and there’s a strong possibility that he won’t win stage 19 and a smaller chance that he won’t win this Tour.
Looking at results of the Tour’s final time trial over the past 40 years, the eventual race winner has won the final time trial only 23 times. And sometimes the man who was wearing the yellow jersey before the time trial has even lost the Tour itself.
That was twice the case when Greg LeMond was racing. The most famed instance, of course, was in 1989 when he started the last-day time trial over a mostly flat course of 24.5km through Paris with a 50-second deficit on race leader Laurent Fignon, and he completed what is still the Tour’s fastest TT longer than 20km at 54.545 kph to beat the Frenchman by 58 seconds and win the Tour by the lowest margin ever, eight seconds.
LeMond repeated his feat in 1990, but in a far less spectacular manner. The American came out of the Pyrénées just five seconds down on yellow jersey Claudio Chiappucci. A superior time trialist, LeMond beat the Italian by 2:21 over a hilly 45.5km course around Vassivière Lake, near Limoges, to easily claim his third Tour victory.
Curiously, only a couple of years before LeMond’s two come-from-behind victories, in 1987, Irishman Stephen Roche beat race leader Pedro Delgado of Spain to turn a 21-second deficit into a 40-second winning margin over a rolling course of 38km in Dijon.
There have been only two other times that the yellow jersey has changed hands in the final-day time trial. The most recent was four years ago, when Floyd Landis came from behind to take the lead from Spain’s Oscar Pereiro — but that result did not stand when Landis was disqualified after testing positive for artificial testosterone.
The other time was in 1968, when Dutchman Jan Janssen overtook yellow jersey Herman Van Springel of Belgium and runner-up Gregorio San Miguel of Spain in a flat 55km TT from Melun to Paris — even though Van Springel was considered the superior time trialist.
In his first Tour victory, in 2007, Contador did not win the final time trial from Cognac to Angoulême. That went to his then-teammate Levi Leipheimer, with Cadel Evans in second. The result was the second-lowest margin in Tour history — just 23 seconds between Contador and Evans, with Leipheimer third overall at 32 seconds.
Can Schleck make up eight seconds?
So can Schleck, a normally inferior performer against the clock, overcome his eight-second deficit on Contador? Conventional wisdom says no because three weeks ago in Rotterdam, the Spanish rider defeated Schleck by 42 seconds in this Tour’s 8.9km prologue.
But Schleck has said that that result is meaningless because he raced in the rain on a treacherous course while Contador had virtually dry conditions.
More important in Saturday’s contest is the relative strength of each man after 20 days of racing, his motivation and the nature of the terrain.
Last year, in the Tour’s final TT at Annecy, Contador beat world champion Fabian Cancellara on a comparatively short 40.5km circuit course that included a steep Category 3 climb — far more favorable to the Spaniard than Saturday’s flat 52km point-to-point course between Bordeaux and Pauillac, which resembles the 2007 course but is even flatter.
“It’s not a typical time trial,” Contador said Friday evening. “It’s for the one who has the most force left after three weeks. And, yes, Andy is really strong right now.”
Schleck has improved dramatically at time trials this year. He has had great help with wind-tunnel tests and won the Luxembourg national TT championship a few days before this Tour started. And should Contador have a bad day or a mechanical, Schleck will have an excellent chance of making up those eight seconds.
Schleck said he will fight till the very end with all his strength and will not roll over and concede to Contador.
“He is good, yes,” Schleck said with a touch of irony. “But I’m not so bad myself.”
The opening 12km of Saturday’s course in on city streets, some of them cobbled, while the remaining 40km is on flat to rolling roads through Bordeaux’s “Entre Deux Mers” vineyards, where a brisk crosswind from the west will make the TT difficult for everyone.
In the battle for the stage win, look for a victory by Cancellara (Saxo Bank) or TT specialists like U.S. time trial champion Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions); his British teammate David Millar; fourth-placed Russian Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who has to ride hard in an attempt to dislodge Spaniard Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) from the third spot on the Paris podium; and Brad Wiggins of Team Sky.
There could also be a surprise winner. The top RadioShack riders have to race their hardest to defend the squad’s team GC lead over Caisse d’Épargne, so Leipheimer, Armstrong, Chris Horner and Andreas Klöden could easily challenge for the day’s podium.
In the end, though, race leader Contador, like all those race leaders before him, has a better than 50 percent chance of winning the stage and cinching the yellow jersey before Sunday’s finale in Paris.