Battle for Tour de France victory down to 57 seconds

Andy Schleck, the runner-up from the past two years, is leading the overall standings. But Australian Cadel Evans could overtake him before Sunday's finale in Paris.

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters
BMC Racing Team's Cadel Evans of Australia descends the Col du Galibier during the 19th stage of the Tour de France cycling race, from Modane to Alpe d' Huez. Evans enters the race's final weekend in 3rd place and 55 seconds behind the leader, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.

A day after an inspired solo effort launched Andy Schleck back into contention for the Tour de France lead, the Luxembourger went one step further: He captured the yellow jersey worn by the race's overall leader.

With a calm, determined ride up the diabolical climb of Alpe d’Huez, the 26-year-old put himself into position to win his first-ever Tour during today’s Stage 19, won by France’s Pierre Rolland.

Schleck heads into tomorrow’s penultimate stage with nearly a minute lead over his closest rivals. One of them is his brother and Leopard Trek teammate, Fränk Schleck. But Fränk, currently sitting in second, is not expected to try and overtake Andy this weekend.

The focus instead is on the third-placed rider: the mercurial Australian Cadel Evans, who managed to finish with the Schlecks on Alpe d’Huez, despite suffering a mechanical failure during the stage. Evans specializes in the format for tomorrow's race, an individual time trial in which cyclists ride alone against the clock.

“[Frank and I] are 1 and 2 – I don’t think we could have done any more,” said Andy Schleck. “And I think one minute is a lot in the time trial, even if Cadel is the specialist.”

Though the race concludes Sunday in Paris, the ride to the Champs-Élysées is typically a processional stage; Saturday’s time trial around Grenoble will likely determine the podium places.

Schleck is considered to be weaker than Evans in the time trial discipline, but he has improved his time trialing since a dismal performance in the 2009 Tour, when he lost 1 minute and 44 seconds to Alberto Contador in the final time trial at Annecy.

“I’m going to be very motivated with the yellow jersey on my shoulders,” Schleck said.

Evans’ deficit of 57 seconds behind Schleck isn’t insurmountable. During the final individual time trial in 1989, American Greg LeMond erased a 50-second deficit and ended up beating France’s Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. It was the closest overall finish in Tour history. (Editor's note: the original version of this story misstated Evans's deficit.)

Schleck's rollercoaster week in the Alps

After Wednesday’s Stage 17, he was more than two minutes and a half behind then-leader Thomas Voeckler.

Dissatisfied with his performance and the stage’s treacherous descent, he lashed out at Tour organizers.

“I think the course was badly chosen,” he said. “We don't want to see riders crashing or taking risks.”

Two days later, his tune has changed. He’s leading the Tour de France for the first time since last year’s Stage 15, when he suffered a mechanical breakdown and Alberto Contador controversially took advantage.

“It’s always a dream to have the yellow jersey and it’s a reality now,” said Schleck. “But I know this isn’t finished until the day after tomorrow.”

Contador attacked again today, though in a more sporting fashion. He and Schleck were seen during the stage exchanging glances and talking.

With about 7.5 miles left on the steep switchbacks of Alpe D’Huez, Contador launched himself up the mountain.

But it was too little, too late for the two-time defending champion – he only picked up 34 seconds on his rival. A year after taking his third Tour de France title, it appears Contador will not even make the podium, which features the top three places.

First French win on iconic Alpe d'Huez stage since '86

After wearing the yellow jersey for 10 stages, France’s Thomas Voeckler – who achieved the same feat in 2004 – was unable to keep up with the Schlecks and Evans on Alpe d’Huez.

Appearing exhausted and breathing heavily at the finish line during a French TV interview, he went through a list of thank-yous like an actor winning an Oscar.

“This is for all of the teammates on my Europcar team, especially,” he said.

There was silver lining for Europcar today, however – they exchanged the yellow jersey for white, the jersey worn by the best young rider. Pierre Rolland, who won today’s stage, is now leading that category.

Remarkably, Rolland was the first Frenchman to win at the famed Alpe d’Huez since Bernard Hinault in 1986.

“Growing up I watched Lance Armstrong and [Marco] Pantani climbing Alpe d’Huez,” he said. “It’s really a great moment.”

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