The 2011 Tour de France was always going to be decided in the final two mountain stages in the Alps.
With two days of enormous climbs, the weak were no longer had anywhere to hide, mountains like Col Agnel, Col d’Izoard, Col du Galibier, and Alpe-d’Huez are too big and too steep for those who aren’t good enough to survive.
The high mountains are where riders who want to win the Tour make their move and stamp their authority on the race.
Today, Andy Schleck threw down the gauntlet and told everyone that he wanted to win the race.
On the climb of the Col d’Izoard, Schleck the younger made his move and put serious time into the bunch, at one stage getting up to a gap of over four minutes.
Going for a break at over 60 kilometres from the end of the stage, seemed like a questionable decision, but one that was ultimately vindicated as Schleck took the stage win.
For reasons that aren’t immediately obvious, the peloton did not react—possibly they simply weren’t able to.
The responsibility for chasing Schleck down fell to Cadel Evans and for the final 25 kilometres, Evans was left to play tow truck for the peloton, spending all but around 15 seconds at the head of the bunch.
One by one, Evans culled the dead wood from the bunch, including Sammy Sanchez and, to everyone’s surprise, three-time Tour winner Alberto Contador.
Those who doubt Evans ability must surely now acknowledge that his effort today—while not a stage winning break—was a superhuman effort, slashing Schlecks lead by two minutes over the last 20 kilometres.
Frank Schleck, after getting a free ride at the back of the peloton, chose the last 200 metres to make a break to claim an opportunistic second place and gaining eight seconds on Evans to leap frog him on the general classification standings.
Somehow, through all of the pain of the climbs and despite destroying some of professional cyclings finest climbers, Tommy Voeckler managed to stay clamped to Evans wheel and got home in time to retain his yellow jersey for the tenth day.
His lead has been whittled down to 15 seconds, and now surely cannot survive until Paris but has surprised everyone with his resilience and courage and will take his place in the history books as a worthy yellow jersey holder.
Tomorrow will be interesting.
Today will have taken its toll on the riders. Andy Schleck seemed close to hitting a wall in the last kilometre of the stage, how he recovers will be telling.
Similarly, Evans pushed himself to his absolute limits. Voeckler possibly went beyond his limits. Contador and Sanchez went well beyond theirs.
Ivan Basso arrived three seconds behind Evans and was nowhere to be seen on the final climb and may well be as fresh as anyone for tomorrow’s effort and Frank Schleck had an easier day than most and may emulate Andy’s efforts from today.
In what seems like a sadistic act, tomorrow sees the Tour visit the Galibier again before going on to the final climb of the Tour, the legendary Alpe-d’Huez.
Today will count for nothing if the riders aren’t able to consolidate their efforts tomorrow.
The Tour has saved the best for last.
Jersey holders after Stage 18 (From letour.fr)
|181||VOECKLER Thomas||TEAM EUROPCAR||79h 34' 06"|
|171||CAVENDISH Mark||HTC - HIGHROAD||320 pts|
|38||VANENDERT Jelle||OMEGA PHARMA - LOTTO||74 pts|
|151||TAARAMAE Rein||COFIDIS LE CREDIT EN LIGNE||79h 43' 42"|
Standings after Stage 18 (From letour.fr)
|1.||VOECKLER Thomas||TEAM EUROPCAR||79h 34' 06"|
|2.||SCHLECK Andy||TEAM LEOPARD-TREK||+ 00' 15"|
|3.||SCHLECK Frank||TEAM LEOPARD-TREK||+ 01' 08"|
|4.||EVANS Cadel||BMC RACING TEAM||+ 01' 12"|
|5.||CUNEGO Damiano||LAMPRE - ISD||+ 03' 46"|
|6.||BASSO Ivan||LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE||+ 03' 46"|
|7.||CONTADOR Alberto||SAXO BANK SUNGARD||+ 04' 44"|
|8.||SANCHEZ Samuel||EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI||+ 05' 20"|
|9.||DANIELSON Tom||TEAM GARMIN - CERVELO||+ 07' 08"|
|10.||PERAUD Jean-Christophe||AG2R LA MONDIALE||+ 09' 27"|