After more than 2,000 miles together through valleys and over mountains, the riders in the Tour de France go their separate ways down the same road on Saturday to decide the winner of the race.
Two days of massive climbs in the high Alps shuffled and reshuffled the standing of the leaders and, entering Saturday’s individual time trial, when they all go one-on-one against the clock over a 24-mile course around Grenoble, the race comes down to either Andy Schleck of Luxembourg or Cadel Evans of Australia.
Schleck holds a 57-second time gap over Evans, but the Aussie is a far superior time-trialer, so it could come down to a second here or there or, since the TT is the only stage measured this closely, to a hundredth of a second.
Schleck’s brother, Frank, actually sits between the two, 53 seconds down to his younger brother, but Frank Schleck is awful at the time trial and he won’t figure in the result. He does have a 1 minute, 17-second lead over fourth place Thomas Voeckler of France, who finally slipped out of the yellow jersey on Friday, and Frank could conceivably hold onto a spot on the podium. And it is also conceivable that Alberto Contador, the three-time champion who was dismissed as out of it two days ago, could have a great time trial and also land on the podium.
It would take something remarkable, however, something like a crash, to keep this from being a showdown between Andy Schleck and Evans, both of whom have twice finished second in the Tour but never won it.
Whatever the result, it will be a refreshing change for the French hosts, even if their dreams of putting countryman Voeckler on the top step slipped away during the tortuous climb of L’Alpe d’Huez on Friday. Twenty of the last 23 Tour winners have come from either Spain or the United States, and it has been since Marco Pantani of Italy won in 1998 that the race winner has come from another country. Schleck would become the fourth Luxembourg rider to win the Tour, and the first since 1958. Evans would become the first Australian ever.
Both of these guys have been hard-luck cases in the past, and it’s hard to imagine the Tour finishing Sunday in Paris without something strange happening again this time. Only nine Tours have finished with a margin between the first and second place riders of less than a minute. Evans has lost two of those – finishing 23 seconds behind Contador in 2008 and 58 seconds behind Carlos Sastre in 2009. Schleck finished 39 seconds behind Contador in 2010.
The closeness of the standings and the likelihood that Evans will erase almost or all of Schleck’s advantage during the time trial brings up an old argument that might finally be settled this year.
The tradition of the Tour is that the final stage of the race is a flat run into Paris that is contested only for a stage win by the sprinters. Even when the race is very close, the common logic is that, because it is a flat stage, no team would be able to pull away and open enough of a gap for its leader to change the final standings in the general classification.
The only time the outcome was decided on the last day was in 1989, and only because the final stage that year happened to be a time trial. American Greg Lemond overtook the time of Laurent Fignon of France to win by eight seconds, the narrowest margin in race history.
There is also the sense that this is meant as a ceremonial stage and that contesting the GC on final mad dashes along the Champs-Elysees is simply not done. This makes no sense to an American point of view, almost as if the ninth inning of a baseball game is rendered purposely moot.
Well, let’s play what-if.
What if Schleck and Evans finish Saturday’s time trial with exactly the same overall time? What if for the first time ever, the race was tied entering the ceremonial stage? (This would take some doing, since the time trial is measured in hundredths-of-a-second, but it is still possible.)
Would both riders begin the day in a yellow jersey? Would both the Leopard-Trek team of the Schlecks and the BMC team of Evans be expected to not contest the outcome? Even if the gap were 1 or 2 seconds?
You have to remember that during a regular stage, the timing is done differently. Unless there is an open gap between bunches of riders – usually something like a second between, which at these speeds can represent 5 or 10 yards or more – then everyone in the bunch is awarded the same finishing time. This keeps the stage finishes from being a mayhem of crashes.
The official regulations of the Tour are a little vague on what constitutes a gap. “At each real break, the timekeeper records a new time.” So, what’s a “real break”? It’s in the eye of the watch holder.
On most days, when the bulk of the peleton finishes, everyone gets the same time even if the bunch of them take 15 or 20 seconds to all cross together. On Friday, for instance, a group of six riders, including Evans and both of the Schlecks, came across more or less together and were all awarded a time of plus-57 seconds compared to Pierre Roland, the winner of the stage.
If this seems terribly imprecise, it is, but otherwise the jockeying for position would be a serious health hazard. It is also why opening a gap on a flat stage is so ridiculously difficult, that no one will try.
Unless Schleck and Evans are tied after Saturday’s time trial, of course. Then, it would be very interesting.
VIDEO: Three-time champion Alberto Contador punches a fan as he climbs the slopes of the Alpe d'Huez in the Tour de France.