Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) may well have delivered the ride of his life on Thursday when he took off unexpectedly on the legendary Col d'Izoard with 62km still to race on stage 18 of the Tour de France.
The 26-year-old’s assault on his general classification rivals was risky, as he was racing into a headwind and he still had the lengthy climb to the finish atop the Col du Galibier to follow. But in the end, Schleck rode himself into second place overall, just 15 seconds shy of the yellow jersey.
"I'm very happy with my stage, I took matters into my own hands. I told myself this morning 'either this works out or it doesn't' - and it did," a tired but satisfied Schleck said at the cold finish on the Galibier.
"I had this in my head for a while. I mean, I'm not going to ride to get fourth in Paris. I'm really happy for me and my team. They all worked hard for this and I have to thank them."
A stiff headwind throughout the stage and especially on the Col du Lautaret made his rivals believe that the Luxembourger would eventually fade and get caught without them having to chase very hard. But Schleck, in the company of a handful of other riders, actually extended his lead to almost four minutes at the foot of the final climb.
"I felt super good this morning, and I wasn't afraid to lose," he said.
The chase group, which included overall leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), was hesitant in its pursuit and reacted too late. Cadel Evans (BMC) eventually led the group on the Galibier, and with 1.5km to go, defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) was dropped.
"Today, we saw that Alberto is beatable," Schleck continued. "I was out for 60 kilometres, so in the end I could do no more. I rode à bloc to take every second I could. When I passed the finish line... it had been a long time I hadn't suffered like this."
Leopard Trek director Kim Andersen was impressed that Schleck was able to pull off the tactic. "It was frightening as a plan but in the end it paid off. Andy was very motivated to do this. And I must say he really pulled it off, in the final he climbed the Galibier really really, really well."
Eddy Merckx, who watched the stage unfold from race director Christian Prudhomme's car, was very impressed with his performance. "To break away like that on the Izoard is not simple, moreover with the headwind on the Lautaret and all these big names behind him,” Merckx said. “Today, Andy wrote an historic page in cycling. Really impressive.
"It makes the history of cycling to see a rider like Andy Schleck take off from far away like that. It was risky, especially with the headwind, and what he did was the performance of a champion. He honours the grandeur of the Tour de France."
Schleck now sits poised to achieve his greatest objective of winning this Tour de France. "I went out for the yellow, because that's my goal, but I'm not disappointed that I didn’t get it today. Looking to the future, I want it, and I have two days to get it now."