Schleck takes Tour lead before time-trial showdown

L’ALPE D’HUEZ, France, (Reuters) – Luxembourg’s Andy  Schleck seized the Tour de France yellow jersey with two days  remaining as 2010 champion Alberto Contador restored his pride  with a relentless day of attacks on the mountainous 19th stage  to l’Alpe d’Huez yesterday.

Andy Schleck

Schleck took the overall lead from Thomas Voeckler but there  was joy for the host nation as Pierre Rolland broke clear to  overtake Contador near the finish to give France its first stage  win this year.

With today’s 42.5km time trial to come before the ride  into Paris, Schleck now leads his brother Frank by 53 seconds  with Australian Cadel Evans 57 seconds back.

Contador, who beat Schleck into second place in 2009 and  2010, blew the peloton to pieces with a series of attacks to  salvage his damaged pride and was only denied a stage victory  when Rolland surged late on.

The Spaniard attacked from the first corner of the Col du  Telegraphe, taking Andy Schleck with him, and even though their  group was caught some 60 kilometres later on the descent of the  Galibier pass, he struck again in the final climb.

His aggressive and stylish display was fatal to Voeckler’s  slim hopes of retaining the yellow jersey he had worn for the  last 10 days, although his own hopes of a fourth victory in five  years have disappeared.

Voeckler began the day with a narrow 15-second lead but  ended it trailing by two minutes 10 seconds.

With Evans expected to be strong in today’s time trial in  Grenoble, the Tour is heading for a thrilling finale.

“Schleck, Schleck, Evans to be one and two, two days before  Paris, what more can you ask for?” Andy Schleck, winner of the  previous stage in the rarefied air of the Galibier, the highest  ever finish in the Tour history, said.

The question for the Luxembourg siblings is whether they can  challenge Evans in Saturday’s hilly ride around Grenoble, a time  trial that looks tailor-made for the Australian’s qualities.

“Cadel is about a minute adrift. It’s a lot. And the yellow  jersey will give me wings,” said leader Schleck. “After 20 days  of racing, a time trial is not the same.

“Cadel is as tired as the rest of us. I might lose the  jersey, but I will give it my all,” he added.

Evans, also twice a Tour runner-up, is ideally placed as  well to go one step higher on the final podium, but he refused  to be drawn into forecasts.

“I don’t know about winning the Tour, we’ll see tomorrow.  I’ll just try to ride as fast as possible,” he said.

HIGH-NOTE

While the overall winner will be decided against the clock,  Contador, out of contention after suffering on the Galibier a  day earlier, was eager to finish the race on a high note.

The three-times Tour champion has been slightly jaded after  winning a gruelling Giro d’Italia in June while the final  decision on his positive dope test on the last Tour has also  been a background distraction.

However, he showed his rivals that he is still the master  when the road goes up.

“The legs hurt in the final kilometres. The combination of  the Telegraphe and Galibier passes was too long for me,” he  said. “It was a 40-km climb. It was too much.

“I wanted the stage for the team. I wanted to do something  beautiful,” added the Spaniard who moved up one spot to sixth  overall, nearly four minutes behind.

The Saxo Bank team leader was two kilometres short of  achieving his goal and there were signs of frustration when he  punched one of the countless spectators dressed in sometimes  funny, more often ridiculous, outfits on the roadside.

A few hundred metres later, he was caught by Rolland and his  compatriot Samuel Sanchez, who went on to fight it out for the  stage laurels with Rolland proving the fresher.

“I didn’t just win a stage, I won in l’Alpe d’Huez,” said  Rolland, the first Frenchman to win at the top of the famous 21  corners of the ascent since Bernard Hinault in 1986.

As for Voeckler, he paid the price for trying too hard to  chase Contador in the Telegraphe pass.

“I’m disappointed but I’m glad for Pierre. He deserved it,”  said the Europcar team leader, seen smashing a bottle on the  tarmac in frustration when he realised his hopes were vanishing.

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