When a 123-mile stage is a welcome break for riders, it’s been a tough Tour de France.
After an exhausting climb through the Pyrénées Thursday, the race today moved leisurely along the southwest Atlantic coast towards Bordeaux, where HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish won Stage 18 in a sprint finish.
It’s customary on long, flat stages like this for the top riders to stay within the bunch, mainly to conserve energy and be sheltered from the wind.
Third-placed Samuel Sanchez, who lost critical time yesterday on the Col du Tourmalet, is three minutes and thirty-two seconds behind Contador heading into Saturday’s penultimate stage.
Saturday, Stage 19, Schleck's last shot
It will essentially be Andy Schleck’s last chance to regain the yellow jersey — which he lost on Stage 15 after suffering a mechanical breakdown.
If Contador can manage to increase his lead Saturday, which many expect, Sunday’s final stage into Paris will be largely processional.
“All day today I was thinking about the chrono tomorrow,” Schleck told reporters after today's race. “It’s going to be the most important day of my career so far.”
While Schleck, a Luxembourger, won his country’s time trial championship this year, he’s not considered as strong as the defending champion Contador.
The 27-year old Spaniard has worked hard to improve his individual skills after finishing fifth in the event during the 2007 Tour de France, though he eventually won the race.
This year, he has already won two time trials.
Despite his advantage, Contador is not letting his guard down.
“I think Andy is really strong and he’s very confident,” said Contador. “I think tomorrow I will have to fight a lot to win the stage.”
Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz battle of the sprinters
With film stars Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz watching the race from official cars, Stage 18 fittingly came down to a battle between cycling’s prima donnas – the sprinters.
Briton Mark Cavendish, fighting bronchitis, powered past his rivals in the last 300 meters to take his fourth stage win of the race.
“I thought I had left it too late,” he said in a post-race press conference. “But I was happy how I jumped on it.”
His last victory during this Tour came on Stage 11 in Bourg-lès-Valence, when teammate Mark Renshaw was kicked out of the Tour for head-butting an opponent in the final meters.
Today’s sprint also shook up the standings for the green jersey – a points-based competition for best sprinter.
There are no chances tomorrow to pick up sprint points, so Petacchi will have to wait until Sunday’s final kilometers on the Champs-Élysées in Paris to defend the jersey.