The final steep mountain stage of the Tour de France brought a flurry of attacks, as Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and a handful of other riders struggled to win time over each other on the iconic Alpe d'Huez.
At the end of the day, Schleck took over the Tour lead, a testament to his refusal to let first Contador, and then Evans, ride away from him.
With two stages remaining, the top 10 riders are:
- Andy Schleck, Luxembourg, Leopard-Trek, 82 hour, 48:43
- Frank Schleck, Luxembourg, Leopard-Trek, plus 53 seconds
- Cadel Evans, Australia, BMC, plus 57 seconds
- Thomas Voeckler, France, Europcar, plus 2:10
- Damiano Cunego, Italy, Lampre-ISD, plus 3:31
- Alberto Contador, Spain, Saxo Bank Sungard, plus 3:55
- Samuel Sanchez, Spain, Euskaltel-Euskadi, plus 4:22
- Ivan Basso, Italy, Liquigas-Cannondale, plus 4:40
- Tom Danielson, United States, Garmin-Cervelo, plus 7:11
- Pierre Rolland, France, Europcar, plus 8:57
After holding the leader's yellow jersey for 10 days, Frenchman Thomas Voeckler put in a valiant effort, but he was unable to follow the repeated accelerations on some of the steepest climbs in the Tour. But close to the finish line, Voeckler's teammate, Pierre Rolland, put on a late burst of speed to shoot past Contador and Samuel Sanchez to take the stage victory — France's first of the 2011 Tour.
After the race, Rolland told the AP, "I grew up watching Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani, watching how they climb the Alpe d'Huez, Now I've won the Alpe d'Huez. It's going to take a minute to sink in."
The mountain stage also brought some unusual moments. In one instance, Voeckler showed his frustration by slamming a water bottle into the asphalt. And in another, Contador was assailed by a spectator offering a syringe. As the Eurosport blog reported: "Contador passes under the five-to-go banner. Contador has to smack a man wearing a green nurse's unform and proferring a syringe... serves him right (the fan)."
Early in the stage, Contador went on an aggressive attacking sprint, one day after Schleck used the same tactic to win the race's 18th stage, in the steep Galibier pass. Schleck followed Contador, and they joined up with riders who were in an early breakaway. But they never got more than 1:30 ahead of the main chase group, which contained Evans and Schleck's brother, Frank. And eventually, Contador's breakaway was reeled back in.
But the Spaniard, the defending Tour champion, made another push, looking to cut into the deficit he must overcome to finish on the podium in Paris. His efforts almost succeeded, but he remains in sixth place. For Contador to move into second or third place, let alone first, he'll need to put in an untouchable time in the next stage, a time trial.
Indeed, it seems that the outcome of the Tour will be determined by Saturday's individual time trial, on a 26-mile route in Grenoble. As the race leader, Schleck will be the last cyclist of the day to race against the clock — and he'll likely know exactly how fast he needs to ride so that he can wear the yellow jersey in Paris.
Many expect Evans and Contador to gain time on the leader in the time trial. But Schleck told the AP Friday that he's studied the time-trial route, and that it suits his riding style.
"Everybody tells me it's a time trial that suits me good, so I believe everybody and hope to show a good performance," Schleck said.