Friday July 22nd, 2011

Wow. What a difference a day makes. After plummeting from overall contention on Thursday, three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador looked like his predatory former self in Friday's Stage 19, attacking from the get-go and dishing out hefty portions of the pain that he was forced to endure a day earlier. Never underestimate the restorative powers of a good night's sleep. (And, possibly, a steak dinner.)

While his gambit ultimately failed -- Contador was overtaken on the final kilometers of the Alpe d'Huez by dashing young Frenchman Pierre Rolland -- he succeeded in injecting terrific drama into the stage. Contador's attack on the day's first ascent, the short but nasty Col du Telegraphe, came while his fellow riders were still digesting their breakfast croissants, just 11 miles into this stage. Just as the race leaders caught up to him, Contador attacked again, shedding a host of notables, foremost among them Thomas Voeckler, rocking the race leader's yellow jersey for the 10th straight day, and Cadel Evans, the guy favored to be wearing yellow on the Champs Elysees on Sunday.

Glomming onto his wheel was Andy Schleck, the hero of the previous day. With an epic, solo 37-mile attack over a pair of monstrous Alps, the Leopard-Trek team leader had jumped from fourth place overall to second, just behind Voeckler, and 57 seconds ahead of Evans, the grimacing Aussie riding for BMC. Stage 19 left Schleck atop the Tour de France, 53 seconds ahead of his brother, Frank, and still 57 seconds ahead of Evans.

Both Andy Schleck and Evans have twice finished second in the Tour de France. One of them will take the final step to the top of the podium Sunday. Evans should be able to pull back those 57 seconds, and a few more, in Saturday's 26.5-mile time trial in Grenoble. But he couldn't afford to give Schleck any more time, which is why it was shocking to see Contador and the lanky Luxembourger floating away from the Australian on the Telegraphe, and on the early slopes of the Galibier (which the riders took on from the opposite direction Friday).

"Contador is cutting the field to shreds!" declaimed the excitable Phil Liggett of Versus. It made sense. Widely considered the world's foremost climbing specialist, his Stage 18 struggles notwithstanding, Contador had never won on the Alpe d'Huez. Victory atop its storied 21 switchbacks was a trophy he coveted. His ambition dovetailed nicely with Schleck's urgent desire to gain time on Evans. Together, they threatened to decide this Tour de France two days before its conclusion.

Didn't happen. As he has since this race entered the mountains, Evans clawed his way back into contention. After trailing by nearly two minutes on the Galibier, Evans and a group of eight other chasers rejoined Contador and Schleck on the outskirts of Bourg d'Oisans, a village at the base of the Alpe d'Huez.

While it's disappointing to fans of Spanish cycling, it's interesting to see Contador showing signs of mortality. As his pedal-stroke softened on the upper reaches of the Galibier, he motioned for Schleck to take up the pacemaking. The Leopard-Trek rider declined, flashing Contador a look that said, "Hey, this was your bright idea."

Contador's grand plans for a victory were undone near the top of the Alpe. One of the subplots of this Tour has been the alliance between Contador and his countryman Sammy Sanchez, who wears the orange kit of team Euskaltel-Euskadi. But it was Sanchez who towed Rolland up to Contador, at which point the 24-year-old Frenchman attacked the Spaniards. To the delight of a nation whose riders had been denied a victory through 18 stages, Rolland stayed clear. His victory on this iconic stage softened the disappointment of his teammate Voeckler, who finally yielded the yellow jersey, and called to mind the Rolling Stones lyric:

You can't always get what you want, But if you try sometime, you just might find, You get what you need.

Schleck and Evans finished together, a minute behind Rolland. And so this three-week, 2,144-mile spectacle will come down to a 26.5-mile individual time trial on the penultimate day. After slipping on the maillot jaune, then exchanging triple-busses with the podium girls, Andy Schleck gave a playful peck to the stuffed lion he'd been handed, then stood smiling, his arms raised, while a surprising number of Luxembourgers in the crowd chanted his name.

He was milking the moment, and who could blame him? Depending on how he rides Saturday, his time in yellow could be brief.

"Many riders say yellow jersey gives you wings," Schleck told Craig Hummer of Versus. "I hope that's the case tomorrow."

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