Leipheimer wins first Tour stage and nearly nabs overall - Evans holds second
Alberto Contador has conquered the 94th Tour de France with a race-saving time trial ride from Cognac to Angoulême. The 24 year-old Spaniard finished 2'18" behind stage winner, Levi Leipheimer, and fought hard to hold off a superb effort by Aussie Cadel Evans to maintain his maillot jaune. The American of Discovery Channel nearly stole the show by covering the 55.5-kilometre parcours in Western France with a time of one hour, two minutes and 44 seconds. Predictor-Lotto's Evans finished 51 seconds behind Leipheimer and will remain in second overall 23 seconds behind 'Kid Contador.'
A tight finish concluded the Tour's second time trial through the French department of Charente and most likely the 2007 Tour de France as Contador now leads the overall classification by 23 seconds on Evans. The 30 year-old Australian acknowledged that taking bonus seconds in the final stage to Paris is unlikely but wasn't discounting the possibility. His Predictor-Lotto team may try to pull off an upset since it is within reach of grabbing the world's biggest Grand Tour.
"Sprinting on the Champs-Élysées? I will think about it tomorrow," noted Evans in French after the race. The attentive Australian stayed far up in the stage 18 sprint and gained three seconds when a gap opened up ahead of Contador's group, and had to body-check a spectator in the process. He noted that sprinting could be perilous and admitted, "It is not worth the risk after what happened yesterday."
Evans had his sights on the yellow jersey, but had to hold off a strong threat to his overall position from the American stage winner. "Always watch out for Leipheimer, I knew he was a good time trial rider," he continued regarding Leipheimer's threat to the overall picture. "I know he was still very fresh. The podium was always the goal but if you are so close to then you really want to win."
The day belonged to Leipheimer who used the early fast-paced ride of team-mate George Hincapie as a reference-point to post a blistering ride and nearly nabbed the overall race win. He went the fastest at all time checks; in Sigogne at the kilometre 17.5 he post 19'36", in Saint-Genis-d'Hiersac, kilometre 35, 39'44" and at kilometre 50.1 he posted 57'14". It was a ride that knocked on the door of second place and nearly knocked down the door of the overall competition. The 33 year-old took his first stage win in the Tour de France while moving from 2'49" back at the end of yesterday to 31" back 24 hours later.
"I am extremely happy to win the stage, it has been a life long dream," Leipheimer explained post-stage. "It has been a life long dream just to ride the Tour! To stand on the podium tomorrow, I imagine that it will be fantastic. I will be very happy for Alberto tomorrow, too.
"I did not think I had a chance to win the Tour today, to be honest," he continued. "When I finished I was watching in the camper, yelling at the TV until Alberto crossed the line safely. I was just as happy for his GC win as I was for my stage win today."
Kitted in the yellow colours of race leader 'Kid Contador' saved the day and likely the 94th Tour de France. His ride was not beautiful, at times, his bike was wobbling under the power he was putting into his machine, but it was sufficient. He lost time to his main rival Evans but he handled the most important task of keeping the maillot jaune on his back. His gap was 1'50" at the start of the day and that slipped down by 1'27".
"For a moment, at 30 kilometres to go, I was a little concerned when they gave me a reference of 38 seconds," Contador remarked on his ride. "There was moment when my legs were hurting... but then this gap stayed steady. In the last kilometres, I knew I had to ride to death to save the jersey."
Contador received help from seven-time winner Lance Armstrong who rode in the team car behind him. "Today, he did not tell me anything from the car but when I was hearing Johan [Bruyneel] I was also hearing behind him the voice of Lance Armstrong." Like Armstrong, Contador has had a near-death experience after suffering a blood clot in his brain, and reflected on that dark time in his young life. "I could not image it when I was there [in the hospital] that today I would be here with all these people watching me."
"It was unexpected but fantastic," confirmed Discovery Directeur Sportif Dirk Demol. "We have confidence that he will not be a one-off winner."
Demol commented on Armstrong's appearance. "Lance is someone that keeps leaving his stamp on the team. Since the stage to Plateau de Beille, Lance talked almost every evening to Alberto and that gave him a lot of confidence."
In the battle for fourth, Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) proved his experience and expanded on the gap to Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) even if he was caught by a storming Leipheimer. Sastre increased his gap to his compatriot from the Basque country by 42 seconds.
The battle for the Lanterne Rouge of the last rider in the general classification was likely locked down today when Wim Vansevenant (Predictor-Lotto) went 1'22" slower than Geraint Thomas (Barloworld). 'Sevi' now sits in dead last with a comfortable margin of 6'39" behind the Brit.
How it unfolded
141 riders started the penultimate stage of the Tour de France knowing that at that point of the race, they were almost certain to make it to Paris. The aim for many was simply to get through the mainly flat 55 kilometre time trial without mishap but for those at the head of the general classification, the stakes were far higher. Maillot jaune Alberto Contador began the day 1'50" ahead of Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto) and 2'49" up on his own Discovery Channel team-mate Levi Leipheimer. Both challengers are better time trialists than the young Spaniard, so everything was to race for.
There was also plenty of incentive for the other GC riders to perform well. Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel Euskadi) started the day fourth and fifth overall and had just 27" between them. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) was 1'18" ahead of Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile Team), who in turn was 1'11" ahead of Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team). KOM leader Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel – Euskadi) were ninth and tenth overall and had just eleven seconds dividing them, while last year's possible victor Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) was hope to overtake one or the other and finish tenth overall for the third time in his career. He's a strong time trialist and started the day 36 seconds behind Soler and 25 seconds away from Astarloza.
Wim Vansevenant (Predictor – Lotto) was first rider off but both he and the youngest rider in the race, Geraint Thomas (Barloworld), were caught during the TT by Sven Krauss, who became the early leader. The Gerolsteiner rider's time was however bettered very soon afterwards by Bram de Groot (Rabobank), then Leif Hoste (Predictor Lotto) went a very impressive 2'36" quicker. His time of 1 hour 5'32" would stand for nearly three and a half hours, although he had nervous moments much earlier when world champion Fabian Cancellara went quicker at the first checkpoint. The CSC rider was five seconds clear of Belgian TT champ Hoste at the 17.5 kilometre mark but would finish seven seconds behind at the finish in Angoulême
Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) was next to threaten. He was eleven seconds quicker than Cancellara at the first checkpoint and nine quicker than Hoste at the next, but faded between there and the finish, running third.
David Millar (Saunier Duval – Prodir) said in the days leading up to the time trial that he would try to win. However the Scott had wretched luck, his rear disk wheel disintegrating about 200 metres after he left the start house. He changed bikes but never recovered from that, finishing 5'04" behind. Rabobank's Thomas Dekker fared much better, showing his speed when he was second at the 17.5 kilometre time check and then going on to finish just seven seconds behind Hoste.
Discovery Channel's George Hincapie gave an indication of what would be a good day for his team when he went provisionally quickest at each of the intermediate checks and finished 15 seconds ahead. However his celebrations were short as behind him, Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne) was chomping up the course and beat his time by six seconds to take over at the top of the leaderboard.
Disappointment was in store for him too, though, as his team-mate Vladimir Karpets scorched along the course, going 31 seconds quicker en route to a time that looked potentially good enough to win. Further back on the course, though, Levi Leipheimer showed he meant business when he went a staggering 39 seconds faster than the Russian. He was chasing Cadel Evans but the Australian showed that he too was on for a good time when he took second at that check, 14 seconds back.
Evans was trying everything to overcome his overnight 1'50" deficit to race leader Contador. However the Spaniard showed that he wasn't going to hand over the yellow jersey without a fight when he placed third at that check, 36 seconds behind Leipheimer, but just 22 seconds away from his closest rival. The intermediate timing at km 35 saw Leipheimer maintain his lead, the American going through there 35 seconds ahead of Evans. While Contador was still losing time, he was resisting at a rate which suggested he should hold on. He was 1'29" behind this team-mate here and 54 seconds adrift of Evans, maintaining an overall lead of 56 seconds.
From there to the finish just 20.5 kilometres remained. It was utterly suspenseful; Leipheimer had started the day 59 seconds behind Evans and when he set a pace 51 seconds quicker by the 50.1 kilometre check, the Australian's GC place looked threatened. Not only that – Evans was 1'18" better than Contador here, closing the gap between them to 32 seconds. It meant that each rider went eyeballs out from there to the finish.
Leipheimer came home with a time of 1 hour 2'44", dominating the day's race and taking his first Tour de France stage victory. Evans showed excellent bike handling over the final kilometres, taking some risks and fighting his way to the line in a time 51 seconds behind that of the stage winner. That meant he had eight seconds in hand for the general classification, but the bigger questions concerned Contador's maillot jaune. The Spaniard sprinted all the way to the line and lunged across for fifth on the stage, 2'18" behind his team-mate, and 23 seconds ahead of Evans in the overall. The jersey was safe.
Of the other top riders, Sastre finished 16th in the time trial and thus holds on to his fourth place overall. Zubeldia lost 42 seconds to the CSC rider and must be content with equalling his 2003 finish placing of fifth. Valverde and Kirchen fought hard for sixth place and while the Spaniard was 25 seconds back at the first time check, he only conceded another twelve between here and the finish. This is enough for him to stay put.
Popovych finished fourth on the stage and remains eighth, while Soler was slower than Astarloza and Pereiro and drops behind the two of them to eleventh on GC. Karpets' strong ride saw him moving past Chris Horner (Predictor Lotto) in the overall standings. However the American overtook Iban Mayo (Euskaltel Euskadi) in the general classification, so he continues in 15th place overall.
Stage 20 - Sunday, July 29: Marcoussis - Paris Champs-Élysées, 146km
The final stage is normally a celebratory, somewhat processional affair until the racing starts on the Champs Elysées. Victory there is highly prestigious but the stakes will be even higher tomorrow due to the fact that the general classification is so tight. Evans is 23 seconds behind Contador and only eight ahead of Leipheimer; sprint bonuses and the prospect of slipping away in a group before the finish could lead to some aggressive racing by the three.
Stage 20 begins in Marcoussis and then takes a wandering course towards Paris and eight finishing circuits on the Champs-Elysées. Two fourth category climbs come inside the first hour and a half of racing, then bonus sprints are situated at Chatenay-Malabry and Haut des Champs-Elysées.
Km 51: Côte de Saint-Rémy-les-Chevreuse - 2.5km climb @ 6% grade / 4th Cat.
Km 54.5: Côte de Châteaufort - 1.5km climb @ 6% grade / 4th Cat.
Km 74: Chatenay-Malabry
Km 108.5: Haut des Champs-Elysees