Five years ago, Stage 14 of the Tour was a potentially pivotal stage that finished with a climb to the ski resort town of Ax-3 Domaine. Today, same deal. Time does indeed run in circles.
As in 2005, there were a number of moments today when it looked like the shit was about to hit the fan, but in the end nothing changed much. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador remained more or less joined at the hip throughout the day, although on the last climb Contador kept putting in little bursts of acceleration to see if Schleck could stay with him, which he could. (Contador is apparently not familiar with the wise words of the Good Doctor: “Avoid those quick bursts of acceleration that drag blood to the back of the brain.”) At one point Paul Sherwen accused Contador of putting in “a very violent attack,” which is a funny way to talk about a guy riding his bike really fast, but that’s the terminology of cycling.
Stage 14 was the exact mirror of Stage 8, where it was Schleck doing the testing. It’s become pretty fascinating to watch these two guys, who appear to be perfectly evenly matched. Schleck lost to Contador last year by 4 minutes and 11 seconds, but he is still a growing boy, barely 25 years old. At the moment he leads Contador by 31 seconds, but in truth that is a dead heat if not an advantage for Contador, who is a much better time trialist. The last meaningful stage in this year’s Tour will be a 52-km time trial in which Contador is a mortal lock to beat Schleck; the only question is by how much.
This means that Andy will want to take some more time from Alberto in the mountains, which is a very tall order. He will really miss his big brother Frank, who was the only teammate capable of keeping him company on the climbs. Contador has two such guys in David Navarro and Alexandre Vinokourov, and that could end up making a big difference. Or not. There’s a lot of talk in the Tour about the intricacies of strategy, but in the end it comes down to who is the strongest, physically and psychologically.
For a long time that was Lance Armstrong, who was scarcely seen today except during the commercials. He is now all the way back in 38th place, 40 minutes behind, but doesn’t seem especially concerned. He looks content to ride out one last Tour and enjoy the scenery. There’s been speculation that he’ll take a shot at winning a stage in the next few days, but it doesn’t seem very likely. Who knows, though, he may have been saving himself for just that reason; I wouldn’t put it past him.
I suppose I am required to report that the winner of Stage 14 was Christophe Riblon of AG2R La Mondiale. It’s been a good year for France, although the highest Frenchman in the general classification is John Gadret in 23rd. Vive le France! Now how about some Serge Gainsbourg?