For someone who lost 10 seconds on the general classification to his most dangerous rival, Andy Schleck was both confident and defiant following stage 12 in Mende.
Schleck did not respond when Alberto Contador attacked on the steep slopes of the climb up La Croix Neuve with 2km remaining, choosing instead to chase and limit his losses.
It was the second time in this Tour de France the two GC favorites have crossed the finish line separated by 10 seconds; the first came Sunday on stage 8, when Schleck attacked and gapped Contador in the final kilometer of the climb into Morzine-Avoriaz.
After Friday’s stage 12 finish, Schleck appeared relaxed and unfazed by the Spaniard’s time gain, saying he had already prepared himself to lose time to Contador.
The Astana rider has twice won a stage of Paris-Nice in Mende finishing on La Croix Neuve; in 2007, the year of his first Tour win, and this year. At this year’s Paris-Nice Schleck lost 1:09 to Contador on the same climb.
“I tried to follow, but I couldn’t, and I expected that,” Schleck said. “We had a meeting this morning, and (Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis) told me, ‘Andy don’t be disappointed if you lose time to Alberto today. He has the punch, and he’s probably going to take some time on you.’ I had that it in my back pocket, but I didn’t want to let him go. But once I saw I couldn’t follow immediately I kept my rhythm, and I gained my time back over the top again. Ten seconds is not a lot. I took that on him in one kilometer (on stage 8).”
Employing some reverse psychology, Schleck pointed to the fact that Contador blew past his Astana teammate Alexander Vinokourov en route to a second-place finish on the stage behind Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez. Vinokourov’s third-place finish gave Astana two of the top three on the day, but no stage win.
“He could have given the stage win to Vinokourov. I think that shows he needs every second to beat me,” Schleck said. “Even in a situation like this, there’s no mercy. That’s a good sign for me, to see that he’s nervous. Ten seconds are important, but I’ll stay positive. Alberto knows me as a rider, and he knows this is not the climb for me, and he took advantage of it.”
Asked why the La Croix Neuve — which is 3.1km long, averaging 10.1 percent — has proven so difficult for him, Schleck smiled.
“When you come down you do 20km on the flat. You’re going fast, in big gears, around the corners. Then it starts steep right away,” Schleck said. “You can’t find a rhythm and you can’t compare it to another col that way. The fact that it’s just really steep and short, that’s what makes it hard. It’s a beautiful climb but I just can’t find my rhythm.”
And though he knows that in order to win the Tour he’ll need more than the 31-second lead he now holds heading into the stage 19 time trial, Schleck said he expects the two summit finishes coming in the Pyrenees to be the race’s most-decisive moments.
“My shape is good, and I prepared to peak, hit my top shape, in the Pyrenees,” he said. “So don’t count me out. I won’t be tired.”