The time gaps between the top three riders in the general classification of the Tour de France aren't the smallest they've ever been heading into the decisive time trial, but considering the pedigree of Andy Schleck, Fränk Schleck and Cadel Evans in the race against the clock, Saturday's 42.5km test in Grenoble could result in one of history's closest Tours de France.
Andy Schleck holds a 53 second lead over his brother, and 57 seconds on Evans, while former yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler is 2:10 in arrears.
The younger of the brothers said following his yellow jersey winning performance on l'Alpe d'Huez that he was confident of holding onto the jersey tomorrow.
"We have an extremely important day tomorrow. We know Cadel is a time trial specialist, and I’m not. I still think I stand a chance. A time trial at the end of a three week tour is different than a time trial on any other day," Schleck said.
Whether or not he can fend off the challenge from the Australian will only be answered on the course on Saturday, but a look back at history can give some indication of how close the standings will be at day's end.
So far this season, neither Schleck brother has showed great promise in the time trials: Andy Schleck was 2:11 adrift of his teammate Fabian Cancellara's 41:01 in the 32 km test at the Tour de Suisse, while Fränk Schleck was 3:06 behind.
Evans, who chose to preview the Grenoble time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné was 1:20 behind Tony Martin's winning time of 55:27, while Voeckler put in his strongest time trial performance to date, 3:18 back. The Frenchman could still pull himself onto the podium, but it's an outside chance.
That choice to race the Dauphiné may prove to be Evans's winning edge, as Schleck himself admitted he had not yet ridden the course. "Kim Andersen tells me the course suits me well. I didn’t do a reconnaissance, but I saw it on television when the peloton did it on the Dauphiné, so I have a clue what it’s like."
Simply looking at past performances and time gaps between the riders is not enough to help guess exactly what might happen in the heat of the moment in Grenoble tomorrow: the accumulated fatigue could sap the strength of riders like Andy Schleck, whose 60km raid and lengthy stint in the breakaway on Friday added up to more time spent in the wind than Evans, although Evans himself did a large portion of the chasing both days.
However you look at the numbers, the gaps are likely to be tantalisingly close tomorrow, and could be a repeat of the scenario seen in last year's Tour.
While Evans was having the worst Tour of his career in 2010, Andy Schleck, battling Contador by a slim eight seconds on the general classification, put in his career's best time trial performance. While neither Schleck nor Contador would come within five minutes of Fabian Cancellara's winning time of 1:00:53 on the 52km course, Schleck conceded just 31 seconds to the Spaniard.
Looking back to the scintillating final time trial of the 2008 Tour de France, which also took place on the Tour's penultimate stage with a 53km route from Cérilly to Saint Amand Montrond, one can get a glimpse of how Evans compares to the elder Schleck brother against the clock.
That year, Fränk Schleck was 1:24 behind Spaniard Carlos Sastre in the general classification heading into the time trial, while Cadel Evans, also with an eye on the maillot jaune, was 1:34 behind. Andy Schleck had been dropped in the Pyrenees and was out of the picture at 10:04.
Evans could only get 29 seconds on Sastre, who put in the time trial of his life in the maillot jaune. He put 1:57 into Andy Schleck, while Fränk Schleck finished a whopping 3:33 slower than the Australian, dropping off the podium entirely. The winning time was 1:04:11, about nine minutes longer than what we expect to see in Grenoble.
One has to remember that Evans suffered a nasty crash in the Pyrenees in 2008, and that likely affected his performance in the test that year. This year, the Schlecks and Evans have been fortunate enough to escape the first 19 stages unscathed.
In 2009, the main time trial of the Tour de France was of a similar length to the Grenoble course, but the 41km test in Annecy came before the final mountain push up the Mont Ventoux. Coming into the stage, Contador already led the Tour by 2:26 and 3:25 over Andy and Fränk Schleck, respectively, while Evans's bad stage on the previous day put him 37 minutes behind on GC.
On the day, Evans was 30 seconds quicker than Andy Schleck, while Fränk Schleck was 1:20 slower than the Australian on a rolling course, but none of the three had much hope of overtaking Contador to win the Tour.
In short, Evans is nearly always faster than Andy Schleck when he comes into a time trial on good form, but the big question is how much quicker he can be.
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