An Aussie Tries to Close Out The Tour

Cadel Evans of Australia speeds down Col de Manse pass near Gap during the 16th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 162.5 kilometers (101 miles) starting in Saint Paul Trois Chateaux and finishing in Gap, southern France, Tuesday July 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

What promises to be the most decisive day of the Tour de France finishes Thursday atop the massive Galibier, an Alpine peak that will require the riders to climb the final 14 miles up a 5.1 percent incline.

There was a snow squall on the Galibier on Monday and if the stage had been scheduled for the following day, it would have still been impassable on bikes. The snow has melted now, but reaching the summit will probably melt at least one or two of the current contenders for the overall title. But which ones?

The Galibier test comes at the end of an epic 124-mile stage that features climbs over two other “beyond category” mountains, the Col Agnel and the Col d’Izoard. That should soften things up even before the finish line is a distant hope. The climb up the Agnel actually goes on for more than 47 miles, if you choose to look at it that way, and it will certainly feel that way for the riders.

Not long after the start of the stage, the riders will pass through the town of Revello, which is 355 feet above sea level. Then the road goes up, and it doesn’t turn downhill until the top of the Agnel, which is at 2,744 meters. So they will climb about 7,900 vertical feet in that span before racing through a descent, clmbing d’Izoard (another 3,200 vertical feet), descending again and then taking on the long slog up the Galibier.

The route goes up the southern face of the final mountain, which is considered the “easier” path. We’ll see about that.

The first 17 stages of the Tour have presented more questions than answers, and it is reasonable to still include as many as eight riders as contenders for at least one step of the podium in Paris and nearly that many who could eventually claim the top step.

 At the moment, heading into the Galibier stage, the race is in the hands of veteran rider Cadel Evans of BMC, who could become the first Australian to win the Tour. He’s in second place behind Thomas Voeckler, but the Frenchman has lost time in two straight stages and neither was anywhere near as difficult as Thursday’s stage and then Friday’s finish up the fabled switchbacks of L’Alpe d’Huez. If Voeckler can still stay with the big boys the next two stages, it will be an utter shock.

There’s reason to doubt Evans, too, however, even though he has finished among the top five in all three Grand Tours during his career. It always seems to be something that keeps him from finishing first, and usually it’s one spectacularly awful day. Evans hasn’t had that one yet, but he’ll have his opportunity in the high Alps.

The accepted logic before the Tour was that this would be a duel between Spaniard Alberto Contador of the Saxo Bank team, who has won three Tours, and young Andy Schleck of Team Leopard-Trek, who finished second to Contador in the last two Tours.

Both are still in contention, but Schleck is 1 minute, 18 behind Evans, and Contador, who looked very vulnerable earlier in the race, is 1:53 behind Evans. Neither of those time gaps is unconquerable, particularly if Evans has a clunker. Contador, who suffered some early crashes that left his knee gimpy, is getting better every day and he’s a sneaky little devil. He is also very good in the individual time trial. That stage is Saturday and if Evans lets Contador hang around, or draw closer, it could decide things.

Andy Schleck’s brother, Frank Schleck, is actually the closest contender to Evans, and it might make sense if Leopard-Trek rode for him, but he is terrible at the time trial and would need to put four or five minutes into both Evans and Contador to have a chance at the win. That’s not likely.

Leopard-Trek has not ridden a brilliant tactical race. They hammered the peleton in the Pyrenees and in other early stages, to very little advantage. Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt, a pair of worthy workhorses, pounded away at the front, perhaps with the hope of breaking some of the other teams. Instead, Leopard looks a little cooked and disorganized now. Andy lost 1:09 to Evans on Monday, attacking when he shouldn’t have and then finding himself unable to recover.

Brian Nygaard is the team manager of Leopard-Trek. In his previous job, he was the media director the CSC and Saxo Bank teams of the wily Bjarne Riis. He was the guy you grabbed to set up an interview. Breaking away from Riis, Nygaard found some Luxembourg backers eager to support the native Schleck brothers, found a sponsor and started his own team, snatching the Schleck boys away from Riis. He also grabbed a number of other really good riders and the directeur sportif (head coach), just to make the smash-and-grab complete. That’s some p.r. guy, huh?

Anyway, it is an excellent team, but Leopard-Trek is having a perplexing Tour. Andy Schleck could fix that with a massive day or two in the mountains, but that’s hard to predict based on what has happened so far.

So, it is a race that rests now with the 34-year-old from the Northern Territory of Australia, the guy who carries his lap dog around when he isn’t racing, and sometimes substitutes that for the stuffed lion presented by yellow jersey sponsor Credit Lyonnais.

The best security blanket in the Tour is a nice time advantage, however. Evans will hope to build one of those on Thursday.