Friday, 22 July 2011


Yesterdays stage of the Tour saw the riders competing in the Alps. I've always enjoyed the mountain stages, the drama of it, the sight of these supermen heading ever upwards into the clouds, the pain and suffering clear to see on their faces.

This was the highest finish in the history of the Tour - and it saw Andy Schleck ascend to the plateau of greatness. All previous doubts concerning the 26-year-old Luxembourg rider's courage and judgment were dispelled by a majestic attack that vindicated his supporters, disarmed his critics and earned the gratitude of neutrals who had been waiting for the explosive gesture that would define this years Tour.

There were three climbs above 2,300 metres and Schleck reshaped the contest single-handed. Alberto Contador had no answer and Samuel Sánchez faded away, Cadel Evans provided the other heroic performance of the day with a desperate chase of the younger Schleck, gritting his teeth and towing the yellow jersey group up the final climb to cut in half what had been, with 10km to go, a lead of four minutes. Without Evans's unassisted effort, Schleck might well have opened up enough of a lead to take to Paris.

This victory, in the first-ever finish at the 2,645m summit of the Col du Galibier, celebrated the first assault on the Alps in 1911. But making history afresh was the point of the day. This was the Tour's Queen stage, as it is called, featuring the highest point of the race as the riders passed over the 2,774m Col d'Agnel before going on to tackle the 2,360m Col d'Izoard and then the mighty Galibier. The most daunting prospect in other words, that the race's planners could devise. And with 60km to go, with 15 riders from various breaks still up ahead and with the battle between the contenders for overall victory seemingly locked in a stalemate, Andy, the younger Schleck brother, launched his effort, accelerating smoothly away from the peloton and on to a cmagnificent solo victory - this was historic riding; a throwback to the days of Merckx and Coppi - it made fascinating viewing, enhanced by the alpine scenery and the good weather.

So gruelling was the stage that only 78 riders finished within the stipulated 120% of the winner's time. The judges took pity on the stragglers, imposing penalties instead of excluding them. Mark Cavendish, who finished in a gruppetto of 80 riders, was docked 20 points, reducing his lead over his nearest rival for the green jersey, José Joaquín Rojas, from 35 points to 15.

But the day was about Andy Schleck, and a feat thoroughly worthy of his late compatriot Charly Gaul, known as the Angel of the Mountains, who won the 1958 Tour after a similarly epic ride in the Alps. To win a yellow jersey of his own, however, bearing in mind Evans's almost certain superiority in Saturday's time trial, Schleck may have to do all it again (today) Friday, on a shorter stage that crosses the Galibier from the other direction before finishing on the Alpe d'Huez, the ultimate killing ground.

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