After 1,900 miles and almost three weeks, the outcome of this year’s Tour de France may rest on an 11.6-mile climb to a mountain-top finish today.
Spain’s Alberto Contador leads Andy Schleck of Luxembourg by 8 seconds ahead of the 17th stage, which hinges on the ascent to the Tourmalet mountain pass, according to Schleck. There are two more flat stages and a time trial before the race ends July 25 in Paris.
Contador, seeking a third title in four years, is a time-trial specialist who beat Schleck by 1 minute, 45 seconds in the discipline over 25 miles last year.
“We’re running out of time, I can’t wait until he has a bad day,” Schleck told reporters yesterday. “Tourmalet is definitely the highlight of this year’s race.”
Last year’s runner-up, Schleck is seeking to become the first Luxembourg winner of cycling’s premier race since Charly Gaul in 1958.
While Tour de France riders have climbed Tourmalet more than 70 times since 1910, it’s only the second time a stage has finished atop the 2,115-meter (1.3-mile) summit.
Schleck said he couldn’t say how much advantage he would need to secure over Contador going into the 32-mile time trial between Bordeaux and Pauillac on July 24.
“I can’t say if 2 minutes or 30 seconds will be enough,” Schleck said. “With 1 minute I will be happy.”
Yvon Sanquer, general manager of Contador’s Astana team, said whoever earns the yellow jersey today will get a psychological boost for the time trial.
“Wearing that jersey gives you an extra edge,” Sanquer said in an interview in Pau yesterday.
Schleck lost that jersey when his bike chain sprang off as he attacked three days ago, allowing Contador to race ahead. Schleck spent about half a minute trying to fix the problem. Riders sometimes slow when a rival has a mechanical fault or crash, and some fans jeered the Spaniard after the last two stages because he didn’t.
Contador, 27, apologized during the stage after the incident, Schleck said, adding that he’d forgiven him. Schleck, who rides for Team Saxo Bank, had initially said his “stomach is full of anger” and he wanted revenge.
“The story is finished for me,” Schleck said. “I don’t think people should whistle him, he’s a great champion.”
Contador, who won the Tour last year in a race marked by his rivalry with then-teammate and seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, didn’t speak to reporters yesterday. Schleck and Contador were staying in the same hotel in Pau, where today’s 108-mile stage starts.
Schleck, 25, said he wouldn’t dwell on the incident even if he finishes the race less than half a minute behind Contador. He’s saving his energy for today.
“I haven’t given everything yet and that gives me confidence,” Schleck said. “I still haven’t spoken my last word in the Tour.”