When Andy Schleck was asked about the importance of today's stage of the Tour de France, which culminates with the ascent of the legendary Tourmalet climb deep in the Pyrenees, the 25-year-old contender could not have been clearer.
"If you're wearing the yellow jersey at the top of the Tourmalet, you'll be wearing yellow in Paris," the SaxoBank rider predicted.
It would be hard to disagree: the Tourmalet is the final mountain-top finish of the 2010 Tour, it is by far the most difficult and historically, during its 75 previous ascents – a Tour record – it has almost always played a crucial and dramatic part in deciding the race. At 15.5km, it is a tough, fearsome prospect, especially as it makes up the final part of a 174km stage.
The Tourmalet's last Tour de France summit finish was in 1974, but even when the race finished halfway up the mountain, at the ski station of La Mongie, as it did in 2002 and 2004, the gruelling nature of the climb sorted the men from the boys and it was here that Lance Armstrong settled the Tour in his favour. Both times.
However, on those occasions the Tour centred on waiting to see when Armstrong would make his first telling move in the mountains, which he did with unremittingly tedious regularity as soon as the race hit the Alps or Pyrenees.
In this year's race there is far more tension and uncertainty: just eight seconds separate the dual winner Alberto Contador, who was victorious last year, from Schleck, the man he pushed into second in 2009, at the top of the Tour standings – and the race is almost certain to come down to the two of them.
Schleck is a pure climber so he knows victory on the Tourmalet is not enough. He must also overturn the eight-second deficit today – and then some, as Contador is the better sprinter with Saturday's 53km time trial through the flatlands of Bordeaux to come.
As was the case for Charly Gaul, when the so-called "Angel of the Mountains" became the last Luxembourg rider to win the Tour 52 years ago, Schleck must put some decent distance on his rivals so he can sleep easy.
That will be easier said than done, even if – after dominating in the mountains in 2009 and in the Tour of Spain he won in 2008 – Contador is by no means as strong this year. In fact, so far in the Tour, in the three days in the Alps and three in the Pyrenees, Contador and Schleck's mountain performances have been tantalisingly close to a draw, which only adds to the intrigue surrounding today's stage.
Schleck took 10 seconds on Contador on the first summit finish, at Morzine Avoriaz, but could not shake him when the race went over its longest climb so far, the Madeleine. Similarly, Contador's counter-attack at Mende only gained the Astana pro the 10 seconds he had lost in the Alps.
Monday's assault on the Porte de Bales climb muddied the waters even further. Schleck appeared to be dropping Contador when he charged away two kilometres from the top, but Contador was catching fast when Schleck's chain jumped and he was forced to stop. Contador seized yellow after darting away to the finish and the Spaniard pointed out afterwards, "30 seconds up or down won't win you the Tour".
But it might. Contador's attack opened a huge can of worms. Schleck, furious at how Contador had refused to follow cycling protocol and wait for him to make his repairs, strode around the press pens threatening revenge. "My stomach is full of anger," he said. "The race is not finished and I will take my revenge." There is now only one place left for Schleck to let all that anger out: the Tourmalet.
It was a sign of how much pressure Contador is under that he refused to hold a leader's rest-day press conference yesterday, as is tradition, having only a few brief words to say to one Spanish news agency. "If I can decide the race on the Tourmalet, I will," the 27-year-old said. "It's a mythical summit, where you'll have to be the most intelligent as well as the strongest to win. But for sure it's going to be hard for us, because Andy and me are both very equal.
"But I'm prepared for battle, and whilst the Tourmalet has a huge place in the Tour's history, the most important thing will be to win in Paris."
Contador insisted that there would be no repeat of last year's dull final mountain stage just 24 hours before reaching Paris when the peloton tackled another historic climb, the Mont Ventoux. "Last year was different. I was thinking more about the overall than the stage win," he explained, a strong hint that this time around on the Tourmalet he is ready to be more aggressive. In this, he has previous.
Contador's victory in the 2008 Tour of Spain came after he blew the race apart on the country's toughest single climb, the Angliru, and in the 2007 Tour a mountain-top win at the Plateau de Beille, another Pyrenean summit, helped lay the foundations for his victory that year – although Michael Rasmussen's exclusion while he was leader, for what his team said were "internal rule violations", certainly helped.
But if Contador's desire to take the race by the scruff of the neck is comprehensible, there is also the question of Saturday's time trial. Until now he has always been superior to Schleck in races against the clock, although if the last two weeks have taught Contador one thing it is that the rider from Luxembourg has made huge improvements in his climbing. How, then, can Contador not be sure that the same is true for the time trial in Bordeaux?
Although the Tour should be decided between the two leaders, there is an outside chance Samuel Sanchez, the Olympic road-race champion, who is a mere two minutes behind Contador, could have a say. Russia's Denis Menchov, the winner of two Tours of Spain and one Tour of Italy, is 2:13 back and could prove a fly in the ointment for the leading pair. The last time Contador took on the Russian in a time trial – June's Critérium du Dauphiné – the Spaniard was resoundingly beaten by the Rabobank rider.
"I am feeling as good as I did when I won the Tour of Spain and when I won the Tour of Italy," Menchov warned yesterday, yet another reason for Contador to go for broke in the Tourmalet.
The Spaniard's biggest problem, though, is that for almost everyone barring the time triallists and sprinters, the Tourmalet is both the Tour's biggest prize and its last chance saloon. Even Armstrong, with his morale lifted after Tuesday's breakaway, has said he would have a crack at one last attack – and his RadioShack team made no secret of the fact. "It's not yet finished, there's one last mountain stage and we're going to try again," his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, said.
So could Armstrong form an alliance with whoever the future 2010 Tour winner may be on the Tourmalet and take a last stage victory while his breakaway partner wraps up the race overall? A fascinating stage is in store.
Height 6ft 1in
Professional team Team CSC
Tour de France record 2008 12th, 2009 2nd (won fastest young rider).
Major results Won the 2006 Tour of Britain and the 2009 Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Finished second in the 2007 Giro d'Italia.
Height 5ft 9in
Professional team Astana
Tour de France record 2007 (won 1 stage), 2009 won (won 3 stages)
Major wins Setmana Catalana 2005, Vuelta a Castilla y Leon 2007, Vuelta a Pais Vasco 2008, Giro d'Italia 2008, Vuelta España 2008.
Chain Reaction: How the leading pair have have gone wheel to wheel
Stage eight Andy Schleck's triumphant victory, his first of the Tour, moved him up to second in the overall standings – 20sec behind the Australian Cadel Evans, and 41 ahead of his closest rival, Alberto Contador, in third.
Stage nine Schleck and Contador formed an alliance and raced together to gain over 2min on their rivals to turn the battle for the yellow jersey into a two-horse race. "From now on it's Alberto v me," Schlek said after the stage. Schleck still led the Spaniard by 41sec.
Stage 12 Contador's late attack lowered the time by 10sec, as he flew past the tiring Schlek on the final climb. "It was an important psychological blow," Contador said as he reduced the time deficit to 31sec.
Stage 14 Shadowed each other and dropped back from the elite pack, neither getting away from the other. "It was a war," Contador said, "we're both at more or less the same level physically and this was a test of minds." Schleck 31sec ahead.
Stage 15 After Schleck had opened a gap from Contador, as he raced up the crucial final climb, his chain jumped, forcing him to pull over. Contador then broke an unwritten rule and passed the helpless Schleck as he pulled over and fixed his bike. "My stomach is full of fire," Schleck said, "I'm going to have my revenge." Contador was roundly booed as he collected his first yellow jersey and went 8sec ahead of Schleck. Following Contador's apology on Tuesday the pair made up.Reuse content