Cycling: Upbeat Schleck plans all-out attack
IT was on the last day of May this year, with heavy snow still on the mountain slopes, that both Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, by sheer coincidence, completed their reconnaissance of the Tourmalet, arriving at the summit within two minutes of each other although from opposite directions.
They knew then with some certainty that the next time they paused at the top of the Pyrenees' most famous climb it would be at the conclusion of today's decisive 17th stage with a Tour de France title the likely outcome.
Objectively, Schleck has got a mountain to climb today in more than one sense as he tries to play catch-up against the man hitherto considered the sport's best climber under pressure. He needs to beat Contador by upwards of 40 seconds if he is to stand a realistic chance in Saturday's time-trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac.
In the Alps last week there were occasions when Schleck threatened to cut loose, and he did gain a useful 31-second lead, but when the moment for the coupe de grace came on the Port de Bales in the Pyrenees on Monday his chain slipped at the crucial moment, Contador took controversial advantage, and now Schleck is eight seconds behind last year's winner.
By another coincidence, both Schleck and Contador are sharing the same modest hotel in Pau and spoke amicably together early yesterday on an official rest day before departing on their separate training rides.
Only the urbane Schleck, however, chose to give a press conference and if his tour de force in three separate languages is any guide he is relaxed and ready for the challenge. "There is only one way to win and that is to beat Alberto up the Tourmalet, there is no other plan," he said. "It is a mountain I like, a long steep climb -- 17km -- with not too many sharp bends. The side we go up is a hard climb, but I will enjoy that.
"Rain is forecast, but I don't think it will influence matters, unless there's some crashes on the downhill before then. Wind, rain or shine, the Tourmalet is still the Tourmalet. I have improved my climbing. I don't think Alberto is going any slower than last year, but I think I'm faster. I don't believe I'll be beaten on the Tourmalet."
Schleck dismissed any thoughts that Contador's attack on his yellow jersey on Monday when encountering an mechanical problem will have any bearing on proceedings.
Schleck said: "He has apologised he said he did wrong and made the wrong decision. I am not angry anymore, just motivated. The case is closed and it should be closed for the fans as well."
Schleck also neatly sidestepped the question of what he would do if Contador's chain slipped at a crucial moment: "The Tour will not be decided by a chain slipping or not."
Close study of TV footage lead Saxo Bank to believe he lost 50 seconds on simply remounting and starting again and then had to regain momentum and pick his way through the field. Nonetheless they claim Schleck rode that last 2.8km of the climb a minimum of 35 seconds faster than Contador, who also had colleagues around to support him. If Schleck could replicate that form over a longer distance on the Tourmalet this afternoon it would set up one of the greatest finishes in Tour history.
Tour de France,
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