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.
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.
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.