The Tour roared back in time yesterday as a long-range attack by Andy Schleck on the race's toughest mountain stage earned the Luxembourg rider a hugely impressive solo win on the Galibier summit finish.
Schleck's lone win after a staggering 60 kilometres off the front over two massive Alpine ascents easily stands comparison with the performances of one of the most legendary of the Tour climbers, his compatriot Charly Gaul. And even if the yellow jersey remained just 15 seconds out of Schleck's reach, his stunning victory could well now place the Leopard Trek rider en route to taking Luxembourg's first victory in the Tour de France since Gaul in 1958.
What ended with the most spectacular Tour stage in years all started in the most low-key and almost quirky of ways – with a quick whistle by Schleck over the heads of the pack to his troops on the Izoard, the second climb of the day. Their response was a sudden acceleration at the front of the pack. And then after two kilometres, the 26-year-old was away, alone, with nobody to stop him.
This was the sort of long-distance move that would have outraged the armchair theorists, given that in these ultra-conservative times, romping out of the pack with one and a half Alpine climbs – not to mention a ferociously strong headwind – is considered suicidal. However, Schleck's plan had many textbook elements, with two team-mates ahead and his brother, Frank, keeping control of the pack and the other rivals behind.
And it worked far better than perhaps even Schleck had calculated as team-mate Joost Posthuma eased him towards the summit of the Izoard climb, and then Maxime Monfort guided Schleck – not the greatest of descenders – down the spiralling drop into the Alpine town of Briancon.
Then the race was truly on, as Schleck's rivals dithered behind and the double Tour runner-up in 2009 and 2010 and his team-mate Monfort thundered away at the head of a string of half a dozen riders up a broad glacier valley towards the Galibier. When Monfort finally peeled off, the smaller of the Schleck brothers' advantage stood at over four minutes – more than enough to make him the new race leader.
Finally, though, Schleck's rivals realised that they were throwing the Tour away, with top favourite Cadel Evans leading a last-minute pursuit. Evans' violent accelerations kept him in the game, and shaved more than a minute off Schleck's lead in just two kilometres, but they were even more beneficial to race leader Thomas Voeckler. Clearly at the end of his tether, the Frenchman gamely clung on as Evans powered up the Galibier's switchback climbs in pursuit of Schleck.
Finally fifth on the line, neither Evans nor Voeckler could stop Schleck from taking one of the most impressive mountain wins in recent Tour history. Just to complete a perfect day for the famille Schleck, his brother Frank then blasted away to take second.
However, both Evans and Voeckler remain in contention for yellow in Paris, which had most definitely not been the case with 20 kilometres left to race – and yesterday, barring Andy Schleck, was all about damage limitation. "I could barely breathe at the top," Voeckler said. "It was horrible but I hung on."
But if Voeckler's stunningly stubborn defence has confirmed him as France's sporting hero of the summer, Schleck's solo mountain attack was arguably even more memorable.
"I told the team today it was double or quits," Schleck said afterwards. "I couldn't stand the idea of finishing fourth in Paris. It's my character, I said I'd risk it all. I'm not afraid to lose.
"I don't have the yellow yet, but tomorrow is another day, and I hope to have it then" – which, if he succeeds, would be on the slopes of Alpe D'Huez, another legendary Alpine climb.
Whilst Sky's Rigoberto Uran could not handle Evans' renewed pace at the front of the pack and has lost the white jersey of Best Young Rider, the rider who is now all but out of the general classification battle after the Galibier is Spain's Alberto Contador.
The triple Tour winner's injuries have left him fighting with one arm behind his back for the last 10 days, and at two kilometres out it all proved too much.
Contador struggled across the line nearly four minutes behind Schleck, and it is hard to see him as a contender.
All credit, too, to Mark Cavendish, who battled through a notoriously tough mountain stage to finish 96th. Although he – and 87 others – finished outside the stage time limit, he was allowed to continue and remains in control of the green jersey despite a 20-point deduction.
If Cav can make it through today's ascent of Alpe D'Huez as well, then only a major last-minute disaster will stop him from taking it all the way to Paris. With three days remaining, the yellow jersey battle, though, is far from being resolved.
Runners and riders
Still in yellow after two Alpine stages, Voeckler put up a tooth-and-claw defence of the lead as memorable as Andy Schleck's victory. A podium place in Paris is at least possible now and perhaps even overall victory if he manages to stay in control today on Alpe d'Huez. A man with nothing to lose, and the whole of France at his feet.
A superb stage win, reminiscent of the greatest mountain climbers yesterday and which puts him firmly in contention for the yellow jersey in Paris. Even if he doesn't take the final victory, Schleck's long-distance attack was the high point of this year's Tour so far.
The end of his chances of winning the Tour. Able to claw back time on two small second category climbs, but when the big mountains kicked in so did Contador's painful knee injury – and the effort for the triple Tour winner has proved too great.
After the disastrous strategic error of letting Andy Schleck gain over four minutes without putting his BMC team to work to reel him in, Evans pulled himself back into contention almost at the last minute with a superb solo effort on the Galibier. If Schleck doesn't gain more time today on Alpe d'Huez – a big if – the Australian has got every chance of winning outright.
Still in green, but docked 20 points for being in the main group of 88 riders who finished outside the time limit, cutting his lead to 15. Today's stage is far shorter – and therefore even more dangerous for Cavendish, who will have to pull out all the stops not to incur another penalty.
What's still to come?
The summit finish on the Tour's most infamous Alpine climb, the Alpe D'Huez, is the last chance for the mountain specialists, while tradition has it that the wearer of the yellow jersey on the Alpe will win the race outright.
The 42km technical time trial in Grenoble will see two races within one, the first for the stage – watch out for Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen – while the second is for the Tour itself.
Last but not least is the sprinters' showdown on the Champs-Elysées – although the overall classification is wrapped up by then.
In the case of Britain's David Millar, a couple of drinks with his Garmin team-mates in a bar run by an old friend of his and conveniently situated between the Champs-Elysées and the team hotel.Reuse content