Coppi and Bartali, Anquetil and Poulidor, Armstrong and Ullrich... now there's Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. The talented duo today showed that they are head and shoulders ahead of the Tour de France peloton with a masterful display on the slopes of the col du Tourmalet. While Schleck took stage honours it was Contador who will remain in yellow, the likelihood of wearing it into Paris now even stronger.
Side-by-side, like the great rivals of yesteryear, Schleck and Contador battled over the final 10km of today's 174km parcours, having watched each other closely over the col de Marie-Blanque and col du Soulor, the first category climbs that punctuated proceedings on a misty day in the Pyrenees.
With the weather helping create a mood of forboding, all eyes were on the pair as they hit the final significant climb of this year's Tour de France. While there weren't the expected fireworks, there was a touching embrace as the two riders hit the finish line in the top two places - despite the talk of foul play after stage 15 there remains a mutual respect that should be the backbone of this sporting relationship for years to come.
For Contador, the spoils of staying with his rival up the Tourmalet's slopes is the maillot jaune while Schleck can finish on Sunday safe in the knowledge he may not have done enough to take the title - provided a significant performance in the time trial is not forthcoming - but he's got two stage wins and the potential to go all the way one day.
The Luxembourger isn't giving up on hopes of the win, however. "I'm going to try and do a fast time trial; I'm motivated and my form is better than before. You saw that today on the last climb with Alberto and myself," he said after the finish.
"I don't want to sound arrogant but the battle for the win is between me and Contador, with Sanchez and Menchov going for third.
"But I'm not going to give up until we get to Paris - last year I was four minutes down and this year it's eight seconds - anything is possible."
And of the battle between Samuel Sanchez - third place overall, 3:32 behind Contador - and Denis Menchov, who sits in fourth overall, 21 seconds behind Sanchez, it will come down to the time trial on Saturday.
After suffering a serious fall early in today's stage, the Spaniard fought back to narrowly open the gap to his Russian rival, although it's not likely the buffer is big enough given the disparity in ability between the two when it comes to the time trial. The race for the final podium place is far from over.
Farewell to the Pyrenees
It was a fond farewell to the Pyrenees in this centenary of its mountains featuring on the Tour de France route. and was therefore fitting that one of its most famed climbs, the col du Tourmalet, would host one of the most important chapters in this year's edition of the race.
After days of blistering heat the rain and cooler temperatures were surely a pleasant change, despite the obvious dangers the moist roads posed on the descents. Nevertheless, unlike the first week of this year's Tour there were surprisingly few crashes.
Liquigas' Kristijan Koren attacked in the first few kilometres of racing and after six clicks the break had been established and set to work getting a gap over the peloton. Marcus Burghardt (BMC Racing), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky), Alexandr Kolobnev (Team Katusha), Rémi Pauriol (Cofidis), Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky), and Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) joined him ahead of the peloton - first stop: the category four côte de Renoir.
The minute mark was soon reached and with 159km of the stage remaining the gap had been extended to 3:21, just as Stephane Auge, Jose Ivan Gutierrez and Daniel Lloyd attacked the bunch in an attempt to get over to the break. Team RadioShack was having nothing of it and soon shut down the sortie off the front.
Cervélo's Ignatas Konovalovas was another of those to try his luck in an attack and succeeded, dangling off the front of the peloton but in reality going nowhere - he posed no threat to the big names so was left to fend for himself.
With just under 150km of the stage remaining Samuel Sanchez came down hard and was sprawled on the ground; soon after Carlos Sastre could be seen off the front of the peloton as his countryman finally got to his feet and began the process of being paced back to the bunch, which took almost 10km.
As the speedo indicated 34km gone in the stage the break enjoyed a gap of 5:10 and 10 minutes later that had been extended to nearly seven minutes, with Sastre having put a couple of minutes into the peloton. Like the rain, the break's advantage wasn't letting up and pushed on towards eight minutes.
Sastre springs a surprise
Having ridden off the front of the peloton with teammate Konovalovas for the better part of 20km, Sastre decided it was time to head out solo with 122km to go and build on his lead over the peloton. At this point the break was continuing to gain time and had cracked the eight-minute barrier.
On the first category col de Marie-Blanque the break splintered a little but came back together on the descent and with 88km of the stage remaining the gap had grown to 8:21, approaching its maximum advantage for the day.
As the breakaway headed onto the early slopes of the col du Soulor - at 67km to go - it held an advantage of 7:47, with Sastre 4:46 behind the escape. The peloton started the same climb with that deficit cut to 7:19 as Sastre began eating into the gap between himself and the leading septet - within several kilometres of starting the climb he had wiped 30 seconds off it.
But as Sastre passed the sign indicating five clicks to the summit he still had a deficit of 3:41 to the leaders and with Astana controlling the peloton up the Soulor there were only a couple of minutes separating the solo Spaniard - the 2008 Tour champion. With heavy mist shrouding the riders it seemed only a matter of time before he would be pulled back.
And with a small flock of sheep threatening to disupt proceedings in the peloton - making an unexpected appearance on the mountain's slopes - the break crested the climb with a gap of 3:13 to Sastre and 4:59 to the main field. The peloton then summited the Soulor with a deficit of 4:17 and 52.4km remaining in the stage.
Faced with a 24km descent to the intermediate sprint in Adast it was 'safety first' for the main field while the break took the opportunity to claw some time back as a result. As the escapees hit 30km to go, it enjoyed a gap of 5:27 but with the Tourmalet looming the question remained: would it be enough to net one of them a stage win? It was at this point that Sastre decided to ease up on his endeavours, with the time between himself and the peloton dropping to 25 seconds.
Through the towns preceeding the Tourmalet, Rabobank and Saxo Bank dominated the front of the peloton - the Dutch squad working hard for Denis Menchov and Robert Gesink, Bjarne Riis' men breaking up the field for Schleck's expected attack.
Up ahead the escape continued to stay together - with 20km to go the gap remained at 4:04 although with the work done by the aforementioned two teams that became 3:55 as the break began the final climb. Within a kilometre that had dropped a further 40 seconds.
Then the expected happened - Boasson Hagen was the first to pop on the Tourmalet, followed by teammate Flecha, then Pauriol, Perez and Koren, with only Burghardt able to stay with Kolobnev, the gap going from 2:46 to 2:31 as Chris Anker Sorensen buried himself for his illustrious teammate in the best young rider's jersey before it was time for Jakob Fuglsang to take over and lift the tempo, shedding more riders who conceded defeat to the speedsters up front.
With 13.7km to go Kolobnev flew off alone and left Burghardt behind as the speed kicked up a notch in the peloton; Schleck's time was running out for an attack but as the gap between Kolobnev and the chasing group dropped below two minutes with 11km to go, it seemed that the big names were on schedule to catch the Russian and begin hitting out in the finale of the stage.
Instead of a GC contender attacking with 10km to go, it was Carlos Barredo hitting out - no sooner had the Spaniard tried his luck than he was followed 20 seconds later by the inevitable attack from Schleck; with Contador on his wheel, the Luxembourger had given himself a tough task if he was to maintain the foray off the front for the final ten kilometres.
Flying past Barredo, the pair left the remainder of the field flailing and as Samuel Sanchez tried getting across with Menchov, the 'Andy and Alberto Show' kicked into another gear, leaving the likes of the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader, the Rabobank captain and his sidekick Gesink, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Roman Kreuziger and Levi Leipheimer behind.
Eating up the deficit to Kolobnev in chunks, with nine kilometres to go the Katusha rider remained seven seconds in front of the dynamic duo sporting the white and yellow jerseys. He was caught 600m later as the leading pair continued its mission to distance itself from the big names behind.
And after less than four kilometres of attacking Schleck and Contador had put more than a minute into the group containing Sanchez and Menchov, the former battling hard despite obviously being in a mountain of pain up the slopes of the famed slopes of the Tourmalet, the latter hoping to usurp his Spanish opponent with the ultimate goal an appearance on the overall podium in Paris.
Final throes on the final mountain
With five kilometres remaining and 1:16 separating the first two groups on the road, the pace was incessant, Schleck checking behind occasionally to see his 'yellow shadow' - Contador - on his wheel. Sensing this presence the Saxo Bank captain tried kicking again as Astana's numero uno matched him stroke for stroke.
On the nine percent gradient and the climb getting more difficult Contador himself kicked with 3.9km to go; Schleck fought hard to respond, managing to do so and giving his friend and foe a long, piercing look when he sidled up to him amidst the cacophony emanating from the manic roadside fans.
Behind them Gesink was riding a superb race, pulling the chasing bunch with his Russian teammate safely tucked in and conserving energy ahead of an expected flurry of attacks in the final kilometres.
There were no such attacks coming from the leading pair however, the efforts of the final 10,000 metres leaving nothing in the tank of either rider. The mutual respect between each dictated the outcome - Schleck would have the stage honours thanks to the work he had done throughout the course of the Tourmalet whilst Contador would sure up his ascendancy overall courtesy of the response to his young rival.
And so it was that Schleck took his second stage win of this year's race, followed by Contador and 1:18 later, countryman Joaquim Rodriguez finished in third. A fantastic effort from Ryder Hesjedal netted fourth place, 1:27 behind the winner and an exhausted Sanchez rolled over the line five seconds later.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank||5:03:29|
|2||Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Astana||Row 1 - Cell 2|
|3||Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha||0:01:18|
|4||Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Transitions||0:01:27|
|5||Samuel Sánchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi||0:01:32|
|6||Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank||0:01:40|
|7||Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank||Row 6 - Cell 2|
|8||Christopher Horner (USA) Team Radioshack||0:01:45|
|9||Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto||0:01:48|
|10||Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas-Doimo||0:02:14|
|11||Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini||0:03:00|
|12||Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale||0:03:26|
|13||Andreas Klöden (Ger) Team Radioshack||0:03:30|
|14||John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||0:03:35|
|15||Kanstantsin Siutsou (Blr) Team HTC - Columbia||0:03:44|
|16||Steve Morabito (Swi) BMC Racing Team||0:03:58|
|17||Lance Armstrong (USA) Team Radioshack||0:04:12|
|18||Carlos Barredo Llamazales (Spa) Quick Step||0:04:16|
|19||Vasili Kiryienka (Blr) Caisse d'Epargne||0:04:27|
|20||Luis León Sánchez Gil (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne||Row 19 - Cell 2|
|21||Pierre Rolland (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom||0:04:30|
|22||Christophe Moreau (Fra) Caisse d'Epargne||0:04:36|
|23||Ruben Plaza Molina (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne||0:04:59|
|24||Gorka Verdugo Marcotegui (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi||0:05:15|
|25||Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Omega Pharma-Lotto||0:05:23|
|26||Amaël Moinard (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne||0:05:30|
|27||Anthony Charteau (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom||0:05:37|
|28||Sylvester Szmyd (Pol) Liquigas-Doimo||0:05:42|
|29||Cyril Gautier (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom||0:05:44|
|30||Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus) Team Katusha||0:05:52|
|31||Kevin De Weert (Bel) Quick Step||0:05:56|
|32||Christophe Riblon (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||0:05:58|
|33||Thomas Löfkvist (Swe) Sky Professional Cycling Team||0:06:21|
|34||Martin Elmiger (Swi) AG2R La Mondiale||0:06:35|
|35||Ruben Perez Moreno (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi||0:06:52|
|36||Kristjan Koren (Slo) Liquigas-Doimo||0:07:02|
|37||Sandy Casar (Fra) Française des Jeux||0:07:36|
|38||Mario Aerts (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto||0:07:49|
|39||Julien El Farès (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne||0:07:55|
|40||Rémy Di Grégorio (Fra) Française des Jeux||0:08:27|
|41||Juan Manuel Gárate Cepa (Spa) Rabobank||0:08:53|
|42||Sergio Paulinho (Por) Team Radioshack||0:08:59|
|43||Levi Leipheimer (USA) Team Radioshack||Row 42 - Cell 2|
|44||Francis De Greef (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto||Row 43 - Cell 2|
|45||Volodymir Gustov (Ukr) Cervelo Test Team||0:09:02|
|46||Johan Van Summeren (Bel) Garmin - Transitions||0:09:14|
|47||José Ivan Gutierrez Palacios (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne||0:10:12|
|48||Sébastien Minard (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne||0:10:26|
|49||Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana||0:10:45|
|50||Thomas Rohregger (Aut) Team Milram||Row 49 - Cell 2|
|51||Matthew Lloyd (Aus) Omega Pharma-Lotto||Row 50 - Cell 2|
|52||Daniel Navarro Garcia (Spa) Astana||Row 51 - Cell 2|
|53||Iban Velasco Murillo (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi||0:10:51|
|54||Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick Step||0:11:16|
|55||Pierrick Fedrigo (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom||Row 54 - Cell 2|
|56||Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Team Saxo Bank||0:11:35|
|57||Chris Anker Sørensen (Den) Team Saxo Bank||Row 56 - Cell 2|
|58||Egoi Martinez De Esteban (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi||Row 57 - Cell 2|
|59||Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||0:12:00|
|60||Marcus Burghardt (Ger) BMC Racing Team||Row 59 - Cell 2|
|61||Rui Alberto Faria da Costa (Por) Caisse d'Epargne||0:12:05|
|62||David Zabriskie (USA) Garmin - Transitions||0:14:41|
|63||Rémi Pauriol (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne||0:15:00|
|64||Aitor Perez Arrieta (Spa) Footon-Servetto||0:15:35|
|65||Mathieu Perget (Fra) Caisse d'Epargne||Row 64 - Cell 2|
|66||Eduard Vorganov (Rus) Team Katusha||Row 65 - Cell 2|
|67||George Hincapie (USA) BMC Racing Team||Row 66 - Cell 2|
|68||Koos Moerenhout (Ned) Rabobank||Row 67 - Cell 2|
|69||Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo||0:16:28|
|70||Alexander Kuschynski (Blr) Liquigas-Doimo||Row 69 - Cell 2|
|71||Jesus Hernandez Blazquez (Spa) Astana||Row 70 - Cell 2|
|72||Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo Test Team||0:16:48|
|73||Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Astana||0:16:52|
|74||Serguei Ivanov (Rus) Team Katusha||Row 73 - Cell 2|
|75||Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team Saxo Bank||0:17:18|
|76||David De La Fuente Rasilla (Spa) Astana||0:17:49|
|77||Grega Bole (Slo) Lampre-Farnese Vini||Row 76 - Cell 2|
|78||Juan Antonio Flecha Giannoni (Spa) Sky Professional Cycling Team||0:19:33|
|79||Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra) Française des Jeux||0:19:45|
|80||Maarten Wijnants (Bel) Quick Step||0:20:08|
|81||Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Professional Cycling Team||0:20:38|
|82||Alan Perez Lezaun (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi||0:21:14|
|83||Linus Gerdemann (Ger) Team Milram||0:22:34|
|84||Michael Rogers (Aus) Team HTC - Columbia||0:23:19|
|85||Maxime Monfort (Bel) Team HTC - Columbia||Row 84 - Cell 2|
|86||Sebastian Lang (Ger) Omega Pharma-Lotto||Row 85 - Cell 2|
|87||Francesco Bellotti (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo||Row 86 - Cell 2|
|88||Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team||Row 87 - Cell 2|
|89||Grischa Niermann (Ger) Rabobank||Row 88 - Cell 2|
|90||Dmitriy Muravyev (Kaz) Team Radioshack||Row 89 - Cell 2|
|91||Grégory Rast (Swi) Team Radioshack||Row 90 - Cell 2|
|92||Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Team Radioshack||Row 91 - Cell 2|
|93||Lars Boom (Ned) Rabobank||Row 92 - Cell 2|
|94||Jurgen Van De Walle (Bel) Quick Step||Row 93 - Cell 2|
|95||Jérôme Pineau (Fra) Quick Step||0:23:29|