A superb solo attack by Carlos Sastre on the Alpe d'Huez climb propelled the Spaniard into the yellow jersey yesterday – but the tradition that whoever leads the Tour after cycling's most mythical ascent goes on to win in Paris may yet be broken.
In a tactical masterstroke by the CSC-Saxo Bank team, Sastre attacked at the foot of the final Alpine climb to finish more than two minutes ahead his closest pursuer, Samuel Sanchez. Sastre, one of five potential winners before yesterday's stage, Sastre increased his chances of yellow with every pedalstroke as he blasted up the notoriously steep, unforgiving climb.
In the chasing group, his team-mate and previous race leader Frank Schleck deliberately eased back on the throttle. By doing so, the CSC-Saxo Bank squad forced the rest of the field – spearheaded by their main challenger, Australian Cadel Evans – to try to limit the gap on the Spaniard. The textbook strategy paid off in spades. Schleck and his brother Andy – perhaps the strongest rider in the race at this point – pounced on everything that moved in Evans' group.
Meanwhile, a little higher on the Alpe's legendary 21 curves, Sastre forged ahead towards a highly prestigious stage win – and yellow. "The important thing was for the race lead to remain in the team." explained Frank Schleck afterwards. "Carlos took the jersey, but that's part of the game. Besides the Tour is not over yet."
The 33-year-old Spaniard seemed all but oblivious to the tens of thousands of fans cheering him on. With his jersey wide open and shoulders hunched over the bars as he soared upwards, halfway up the 13.8km (8.6 mile) climb, Sastre was already race leader on the road.
But the Spaniard could not afford to relax. With a decisive final 53km time trial looming on Saturday, for Sastre – notoriously weak against the clock – to win the Tour he had to gain as much time as possible on his rivals. Metre by metre the time gap opened, but only when he reached the summit did Sastre finally sit back, zipping up his jersey and pointing his right arm skywards. It was a spellbinding ride, the more so because such an aggressive move was totally out of character. A top 10 finisher in the Tour since 2002, the veteran has just four victories in his 12-year career – a direct consequence of his usually ultra-conservative racing style.
Sastre's one previous spell in the lead of any race, let alone a three-week race like the Tour, came after the opening team time trial of the Tour of Spain in 2006, when his squad, CSC, deliberately allowed him to be the first of the team across the line.
Yesterday teamwork played a huge part in Sastre's victory again, as he showed by the big hug he gave Frank Schleck immediately after the stage. But on this occasion the responsibility for opening up a big enough margin to win was Sastre's, and his alone. "I knew I had to attack from the bottom of the climb because if I didn't I wouldn't get enough time on Evans." Sastre said. "It was a planned strategy, one that we had discussed this morning." "I told Frank – 'I'm going'. And I went."
The first real victim of Sastre's all-out lunge for the lead was not Evans but the Russian challenger Denis Menchov, who clawed his way back into contention only in the final kilometres of the climb. As for the Australian, his jaw sagging as he tried to organise a pursuit behind, with no team-mates for support the Silence-Lotto rider's only option was to limit the gap as best he could. "I didn't get any backing from the rest of the guys there," Evans said afterwards. "It wasn't a good situation. When Carlos went, there was nothing I could do. Nothing at all."
Part of his problem were the Shleck brothers, who suffocated almost every timid counter-attack among the chasers to their team-mate's lone thrust for yellow with savage glee. It seemed irrelevant to the two brothers that some of the attackers, particularly from the lowly Ag2R team, were no threat overall. As soon as someone peeked out of the pack, a Schleck – one in yellow, the other in white, both acting as two-wheeled bouncers – clamped the move down. For Evans and Menchov, the latter already close to collapse, the chance of gatecrashing Sastre's party looked very slim indeed.
What Evans was able to take more comfort from was that the gap finally opened up by Sastre was spectacular – two minutes and 15 seconds on the stage – but perhaps not spectacular enough. Evans is a far more competent time trialist, and Sastre's lead on the Australian, fourth overall, is just 94 seconds.
In last year's equivalent Tour final time trial, Sastre lost over two minutes to Evans. Doing the maths, it would seem that Evans is en route for yellow. However, this Tour is anything but predictable – and, at the moment, Sastre has the upper hand.
Viewers' verdict on 'brutal' stage
This has to be one of the most difficult stages in recent Tour history. Brutal.
SunSwingsLow on bikeforums.net
Bernhard Kohl seems to be the man to watch. Face for radio and legs for mountains!
bigcog on the 606 forum
On the pre-race favourite and former race leader Cadel Evans
It seems churlish to criticise a rider for being smart and making the most of his ability – but I won't let that stop me! Evans is like a bargain basement Indurain, twice as boring but only half as good. For ****s sake, have a go for once in your life, Evans. You may lose the tour, but you might get some fans!
wild man on forums.itv.com
I think that once again, you have to be honest and applaud Cadel. Whether it was by luck or design, the tactics employed by CSC, and the caginess of his ride have meant that in one fell swoop he has eliminated all other contenders with the exception of Sastre, who will now have to do the ride of his life to keep the jersey in the TT.
omgidbi on the 606 forum
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.ukReuse content