The biting wind, stunning sunlight, and craggy rocks of Mont Ventoux served as a dramatic backdrop to the race that unfolded there today.
Just as the sharp rocks of the mountain form an unstable terrain, sometimes tripping you, so did Andy Schleck try to destroy his rival Yellow Jersey holder, Alberto Contador.
As flags of Luxembourg held by fans of the two Schleck brothers waved over the last hundred meters to the finish, below them a hard game was being played to exhaust the leader, Contador. But he just wouldn't--no, he couldn't--let them win.
"Andy really did make me suffer a lot. He didn't make any mistakes in the race, and he rode really intelligently," said Contador about his primary rival in the race today after he secured the Yellow Jersey in this second to last, but most decisive stage.
And right along with him was Lance Armstrong looking stronger and more resilient than he has in the past four days, including the time trial where he won back 3rd position overall.
In the end, the top three positions were cemented in the harsh environment of Le Ventoux, the dust blowing from the loose stones that cover the mountain providing the final flourish. And it was the Astana Team that walked away with the fruits of their labor.
"Yes it was a good day," said their directeur sportif johan Bruyneel, after the finish. "When we saw the attack, and we saw Alberto Contador follow the attack, after that it was really the race for the third spot," he said.
Wiggins also managed to keep Frank Schleck down to take fourth position overall, with Frank fifth. But the outcome could have been different if Contador had not had the strength to best his competitors, whom he dusted handily in the time trial in Annecy two days previous, and continued to best in every mountain stage.
"I think you could easily say that Alberto Contador is the best rider in the world," said Bruyneel, a fact that became apparent in Verbier when Contador pulled away from his antagonist, Andy Schleck, at the same time dusting his teammate Armstrong. That’s when the focus of the team—who was being played as the favorite shifted from Armstrong to Contador.
Today, Contador played the team role to the max, having learned his lesson on the Col de Romme when he attacked and lost his own teammate Andrea Kloden: despite eight attacks from Andy Schleck, Contador made it clear that he would not pull away from his competition, because he was waiting for Armstrong.
“When we saw Alberto Contador follow the attack of Andy Schleck, after that it was really the race for the third position on the podium,” said Bruyneel, referring to Armstrong’s standing from the time trial stage in Annecy two days earlier.
The podium he said “is a very good one, with two young guys, Contardor the best rider in the world, and Andy Schleck the winner of the White Jersey, and Armstrong who came back to cycling after three years in retirement, he was their hero when they started racing.”
Though no one from the Astana team will discuss it publicly, the addition of Amstrong may have been a disappointment to Contador initially because in the beginning he was the star rider.
But Armstrong’s star power, regardless of his strength can eclipse even the best riders, as it did on this Tour—until Contador strutted his stuff on the climbs and asserted his dominance in the time trial. He would leave no question about who was the best in the tour, besting Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara’s time by three seconds.
It wasn’t even clear that Armstrong was going to race this year’s Tour said Bruyneel. “It was very doubtful three weeks after Armstrong’s crash, he was down and already it seemed like he was going to have a hard time,” he added. Bruyneel admitted that there was tension between the two star riders.
But now with Armstrong’s announcement that he will be pairing with Radio Shack for a U.S. team, it is clear that the two riders will no longer have to deal with one another except as competitors. And although it has not been officially announced which team will be sponsoring Contador, “he is looking to his future,” and another team, said Bruyneel.
A stage that no one could miss
Entire families, couples, children, and even men and women well into their 60's and 70's walked or rode their bikes in the boiling sun 18 km from the bottom of the famous mountain at Malaucene just for a chance to see the teams reach the summit. For them, seeing the final winners on this mountain was not to be missed.
Though much of the action was playing out below their vantage point some 18 km from the top, the summit was jammed with people holding flags, dressed in warm jackets to fend off the wind that whipped around the few buildings on top, the old chapel of Saint Croix and the observatory with its red and white tower visible from miles away.
Some 14 km away, near the base of Ventoux, the two Schlecks were at it again, with a harsh relentlessness that would have taken down lesser competitors, but not Contador and Armstrong. Andy and Frank, almost as if in a replay of stage 17, attacked and attacked and attacked, but only managed to thin the field behind as Contador, Armstrong, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali stuck to their moves.
First Frank attached, with 14 km to go, at the base of Mont Ventoux. That move thinned the field down to the chief players, who managed to stay on. But Andy Schleck began the relentless attacks, eight in all, dropping even his own brother, who played out his own game with Wiggins and Armstrong.
Armstrong then attacked and joined Contador and Andy Schleck. At intervals it looked like Andy was waiting for Frank, hoping to help secure him once again, third place on the podium, and to push both Wiggins and Armstrong down in the standings.
But it was not to be. Frank could not keep up with the three, and Armstrong bettered him, holding on to his third place win. It was a day of returned loyalties as Contador also waited for Armstrong, and seemed to be pacing him up the mountain: He could afford to because of his four minute 11 second lead over Andy Schleck.
Meanwhile another battle had been taking place since the beginning of the stage, at 13 km a group of 13 men escaped from the peleton, among them Roulston (CTT), Garate and Posthuma (RAB), Martin (THR), Riblon (ALM), Kuschynski (LIQ), Geslin (FDJ), Dumoulin (COF), Righi (LAM), Bonnet (BBO), Bouet (AGR), Lemoine and Timmer (SKS).
They were chased by Perez Moreno (EUS), Gutierrez (GCE) and Delage (SIL).
Mont Ventoux was not the only climb of the day, it was just the last and the worst. Before then the lead group of 13 were chased by the peleton over several category 3, 4 and 5 climbs until Bedouin at the base of Mont Ventoux.
As they began the climb that group splintered and among them, Juan Manuel Garate of Euskatel and Tony Martin of Columbia HTC battled it out to the top, with Garate taking the stage win.
The Astana team came to the front of the peloton after the fourth climb (121.5km) when the first breakaway group of 13 was eight minutes and 15 seconds ahead.
With 30km to go, the pace of the peloton caused it to split. The GC favorites were all represented in the first group of 42 riders. Carlos Sastre (CTT) was caught in the second peloton that was 30” behind with 25 km to go.
At the base of Mont Ventoux, the yellow jersey’s peloton had 24 riders – including the top 12 of the general classification. At that point, they were a little more than 4 minutes behind the first breakaway at 19 km to go.
That's when Garate started attacking and was joined by Martin, and briefly by Riblon and the the rest of the breakaway was swallowed early on in the climb.
And who were the fans cheering for? Just about everyone, the Schlecks, Contador, Garate and Armstrong. “People used to not like Armstrong because they did not like an easy victor,” said Pierrick Tabouret, 27 who made the entire ascent by bike with his friend David Nogues. “But they like him better this year because he is not the big leader,” he said, and now most people he speaks to say they want Armstrong to do well.
That might be a big switch for the French, who for the past Tours that Armstrong dominated were said to dislike him because of his dominance of a race that many thought should be more open to other winners, including and especially Frenchmen. But now that he’s third on the podium, he is the underdog, and they want him to win.
We’ll see what happens next year when he attempts to win his 8th Tour.