GAP, France (VN) — Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard) said he wasn’t going to ride all the way to Paris without a fight.
Everyone assumed that meant the Galibier or Alpe d’Huez later this week, but with the three-time Tour champion riding on his heels through the first two weeks of the Tour, waiting until the final monster climbs of the Alps might have left it too late.
Contador sprung back to life a day after the Tour’s second rest day with an opening jab on the second-category Col de Manse with about 20km to go and shot a bolt of electricity through a moribund GC picture to shake things up just as the Tour pushes east into the Alps for three decisive climbing stages.
Contador revived his GC hopes to gap the Schleck brothers and took back time on most of his top rivals. Only Cadel Evans (BMC) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) could follow as both of them also bolstered their podium aspirations.
“Boof – 1:06 to Andy. I thought we’d take 20 seconds at the most,” Contador said at the finish line in Gap. “My sensations are still not my best, but I cannot afford to wait any longer.”
Contador surged away two kilometers into the Manse climb just as rains started to make for wet, dangerous racing conditions. Yellow jersey Voeckler bravely marked the wheel, but eventually ceded ground. Evans and Sanchez rode Contador’s rooster-tail spray off his wheel while the Schleck brothers couldn’t match the high-speed accelerations on the moderately steep climb.
At the line in Gap, Contador took back 18 seconds on Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek) and Tour leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), 51 seconds on Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and 1:06 on Schleck. Contador trimmed his difference to Andy Schleck to 39 seconds (the exact amount of time by which he beat Schleck in last year’s Tour) and 1:53 to Frank Schleck.
“We know we cannot lose any opportunity to attack. We cannot wait,” said Saxo Bank-Sungard manager Bjarne Riis. “Andy losing so much time on a short climb is a good sign for us. Evans is our most dangerous rival now. Alberto was never out of this Tour de France.”
Most of Andy Schleck’s losses came on the harrowing descent off the final climb into Gap, the same road where Joseba Beloki suffered his disastrous crash in 2003 and Lance Armstrong was able to avert disaster by riding across a hayfield on a switchback. Andy Schleck was riding in the front group at about 20 seconds behind Contador, Sanchez and Evans when he came sweeping into one of the first corners of the course. Another rider nearly crashed and Schleck said he had to unclip his pedal to avoid falling, something that he said eventually cost him nearly a minute by the time he crossed the line.
“It was a dangerous finale. I had to unclip on the first corner and I immediately lost 150 meters to my group,” an angry Andy Schleck said at Gap. “After that, I didn’t want to take any more unnecessary risks. I don’t think people want to see a race decided on the downhill. We don’t want to see riders crashes. A finish like that shouldn’t be allowed.”
If Andy Schleck didn’t like what he saw at Gap, things could be even worse in Wednesday’s foray into Italy. The course finishes with a similar second-category climb over Pramartino, but the descent is even steeper and narrower than the drop into Gap.
While the Schlecks were putting on a brave face to Contador’s jabs, Evans and Sanchez both solidified their GC positions. Sanchez is renowned as one of the peloton’s best descenders and was more than happy to be at the nose of the action on the tricky descent.
“We got through a difficult day and on the descent we stayed clear of trouble by being at the front,” Sanchez said, now fifth at 3:26 back. “You have to take this Tour one day a time. In this Tour, it’s not worth it to think about what happened yesterday or what’s going to happen two days from now. The most important thing is to try to recover as best you can for the next day’s stage. Now we’re in the third week of the Tour and the strength is starting to wear down. You just have to be steady in this Tour, there’s no other secret.”
Evans continues to prove his worth during this Tour and climbed into second place overall, at 1:45 to Voeckler. The Australian has been at the right place at the right time throughout this Tour, avoiding crashes, time losses and other mishaps that have either KO’d or seriously handicapped the chances of many top GC hopefuls. Evans was able to mark Contador’s surge and then sliced down the wet roads to make a late-stage attack to cross the line three seconds ahead of Contador and Sanchez in 11th place.
“I wasn’t expecting so much on this climb. I was more prepared for things on the downhill, because it’s actually a bit dangerous,” Evans said. “I got in the front and followed the moves. It was not like (Contador) was going to go from there normally, so I took my time and looked around and saw what was going on. It’s the guys coming from behind who can be the danger.”
So far, Evans has been happy to let everyone worry about the Schleck-Contador showdown. That’s clearly going to change in the coming days as it’s Evans – not the Schleck brothers – who will move into Contador’s sights if the Pisterolo is feeling like he can unload in the Alps.
Nothing is decided in this Tour, with six GC favorites packed in within two minutes of each other and Voeckler stubbornly hanging on to yellow.
As UCI president Pat McQuaid told journalists Monday, “We do not know who is going to win the Tour and we’re well into the third week. The GC is very tight. That’s good for cycling.”