The Alberto and Andy show reaches its climax today.
No one who embraces drama and appreciates strategy can justify missing the Tour de France's epic 17th stage. This could top the NBA Finals, the Super Bowl, and the World Series. It could be that good.
The two best riders in professional cycling, Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck and Astana's Alberto Contador, will spar in the final of four days in the Pyrenees. The risk and danger matches the intrigue. The stakes couldn't be higher.
Do not dismiss me as some worshiper of hyperbole, either. I know a good fight when I see one. This is a spectacular tussle. Contador, a two-time Tour champion, clings to his eight second lead and the experience and the stamina that makes him near unbeatable with a lead.
His time of 78 hours, 29 minutes, and 10 seconds leads all 172 riders. He rules the race's latter stages as Lance Armstrong once did.
The American icon's frustrating, melancholic showing has caused some viewers to lose interest. The seven-time champ bowed gracefully Tuesday afternoon in leading a 10-man breakaway over the col de Peyresourde and col d’Aspin to the finish in the town of Pau.
That was likely the last breakaway and series of attacks Armstrong will instigate in a Tour. That he failed to win the stage, even after the hard work he put in to stay with the opportunists who broke from the main field early, shows the need for retirement.
His soon-to-be 39-year-old legs cannot handle this three week grind any longer. Five years ago, he ruled the race and secured his seventh title and a place in history. He started the day in 31st and only moved up to 25th. Riders can make these magnificent sprints because they pose no threat to the podium contenders.
Schleck and Contador let the Texan have his would-be moment. Armstrong's sixth place finish on the stage is not an accurate reflection of his glorious last ride.
He said he wanted to show the cycling world those legs still had something left in them. He did.
Now, a young rider from Luxembourg and a Spaniard often compared to Armstrong will once again take center stage. The two appear to have made peace after a Stage 15 tiff.
Schleck lost the yellow jersey Monday afternoon when the power of his attack on a steep climb caused his bike chain to drop and get wedged between the crank and the bottom bracket. Contador, who says he was unaware of the mechanical failure until it was too late to slow down, did not wait.
The forced emergency repair cost Schleck the sacred seconds he will try to get back today. His 31-second lead evaporated and became an eight-second deficit. Contador posted an apologetic YouTube video, and Schleck asked fans to stop booing the Spaniard for the sake of both riders.
These acts of sportsmanship do not lessen how much these guys want to beat one another. On Stage 17, endurance meets acumen. The overall leader after today can smile all the way to Paris.
It is hard to imagine either rider overcoming a sizable gap in the upcoming time trial. So, everything that happens from Pau back to the Col du Tourmalet will impact the general classification.
This represents Levi Leipheimer's last realistic chance to move up into podium contention, unlikely and daunting as that task seems. Denis Menchov, Robert Gesink, and Samuel Sanchez, among others, want to stand tall in Paris. Anthony Charteau wants to wrap up the polkadot jersey that honors the King of the Mountains.
The uncertainty of when the attacks will begin makes this must-see TV. You cannot understand the intensity unless you watch it.
The 174-kilometer stage features three categorized climbs, numerous hills, and a murderous finish. The last ascent, even on the Tour Web site's profile, looks like the equivalent of a forceful body slam. Schleck and Contador might collapse when the ride ends.
Armstrong has done so before after what amounts to one of the toughest climbs in any of the sport's circuit events. A few years ago, he commenced a similar war of wills with German Jan Ullrich.
Today, Schleck and Contador will engage in another classic battle. Many think Schleck might already have two Tour victories under his belt if not for Contador. This is his chance to emerge from that Spain-sized shadow.
Neither of these guys wants to settle for second place. Expect a crash or two. Expect grimaces and numerous failed breakaways. Expect to see 172 gassed riders, if that many are still in the race when the peloton arrives at the Col du Tourmalet's summit. Most of all, expect the showdown of the summer.
Make that the showdown of the year.
Don't be the guy or gal who misses the finale of the Alberto and Andy show.
I may just have to come to your office and bonk you over the head with a water cooler.
TV information : Catch Stage 17 live on Versus from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. (Central time). The network will air a replay later in the day.
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