Strange sight a mile and half from the summit of the serrated, forbidding Col du Galibier: As Andy Schleck of team Leopard-Trek closed in on victory on Stage 18, the most difficult day of this three-week race, a middle-aged man popped through the sun roof of a nearby car. It was the Cannibal himself, five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx, shouting encouragement at Schleck, who was in the process of finishing one of the most audacious attacks in the modern history of this race.
We were starved for a move like this. By launching an intrepid, solo move 37 miles from the finish line, Schleck displayed the kind of brio -- the French call it panache -- for which the Cannibal was known. Honestly, Schleck had no choice. It had become clear, through 2½ weeks of racing, that there is little distance, or difference, between the Tour's main contenders: Andy and his older brother, Frank; BMC's dangerous Aussie, Cadel Evans; Ivan Basso of Liquigas; and the recently awakened and newly dangerous defending champion, Alberto Contador.
The 2010 Tour had come down to a duel on the final mountain, when Schleck's repeated surges on the Col du Tourmalet were easily marked by Contador. The Spaniard went on to win that race, just as he'd won it in '09 and '07. And after a semi-disastrous start to this year's Tour, the SaxoBank leader appeared to have found his form in the third week of the race. In a surprise attack on a medium-sized mountain at the end of Stage 16 on Tuesday, Contador escaped and took more than a minute from Schleck, who came off as a tad whiny, complaining about the dangerous, technical descent to the finish line. In Stage 17 on Wednesday, Contador attacked and got away, again. Even though his chief rivals overtook him at the finish, the Spaniard had taken the race to them. The impression was unmistakable: The Schlecks were on the defensive.
That lasted until halfway up the Col d'Izoard, the second of three hors catégorie (read: obscene) climbs in Thursday's 124-mile stage from Pinerolo, in Italy, to the 8,678-feet summit of the Galibier. On the steepest part of that ascent, just before the peloton arrived at the barren scree known as the Casse Desert (broken desert), Schleck stood in his saddle and shot from the bunch. With the finish still 37 miles away, the big names looked at one another ... and let him go. In that moment, Andy Schleck may have won the 2011 Tour. Contador certainly lost it.
"This is a brave move, an iconic move!" raved Versus commentator Paul Sherwen.
At the tree-less, lunar summit of the Izoard, Schleck was two minutes ahead. On the furious descent, he joined forces with teammate Maxime Monfort, who'd gone up the road in an earlier breakaway. Working chiefly with Monford on the long valley road to the Galibier, Schleck fattened his lead over his rivals to more than four minutes. Behind him, a sense of panic infected the chasers.
With Schleck well up the Galibier, Evans and Contador went to the front of the peloton, where they took turns setting a vicious pace until, shockingly, Contador cracked. Finally showing the effects of his supreme effort he put forth to win the three-week Giro d'Italia in May, the three-time Tour winner peeled off to find a less painful slot further back in the bunch. If Evans wished to salvage his chances to win this race, he would have to do it alone.
Out of the saddle, rocking furiously back and forth, the Aussie did just that. Seven and a half miles from the summit, Schleck's lead was 4:08. But he was hemorrhaging time. Three miles from the top, he led by only 3:14. Powering his way through a promenade of camper vans and hysterical crowds -- Schleck is well-liked in France, in large part because Contador isn't -- the Luxembourger's pedal stroke became less fluid; the Mona Lisa-like smile on his angular features replaced by a distinct grimace.
By this time, Contador had popped off the back, his chances for a fourth Tour victory extinct. Clinging to Evans like cheap cologne, however, was Thomas Voeckler, the indefatigable French rider for team Europcar, who'd spent the previous nine stages in the yellow jersey. Voeckler needed to finish within 2:36 of Andy to keep the maillot jaune another day. He made it by 15 seconds.
Frank Schleck, who'd done no work in the chase group -- why would he help reel in his brother? -- pulled around Evans to take second place. Evans, who lost 2:15 to Andy on the day, now trails him by 57 seconds. The Aussie is likely to make up time in Saturday's penultimate stage, a 26.4-mile time trial in Grenoble.
Who knows what the standing will be going into Grenoble? Friday's Stage 19 is sawed-off -- just 68 miles -- yet sadistic. After hauling themselves over the Galibier from the other side, the riders will finish on the notorious 21 switchbacks of the Alpe d'Huez.
The race is suddenly, infinitely more compelling. Will Andy have anything left on the Alpe d'Huez? Can he limit his losses in the time trial, keep Evans at bay and ride into Paris on Sunday in yellow? Can Voeckler hang on to the jersey one more day? Is Friday Frank's turn? The elder Schleck, after all, won on the Alpe five years ago.
All we know for sure is that Contador is cooked, thanks to a bold gamble by Andy Schleck, who later recounted to Craig Hummer of Versus that he'd told himself that morning, "No guts, no glory." After risking everything, Schleck won the day, and quite possibly the race.