Our man Andy Schleck and Spaniard Alberto Contador provided the mano-a-mano fireworks in today’s Stage 9 of the 2010 Tour de France, duking it out on the long climb (average grade 6.7 percent) up Col de la Madeleine as race leader Cadel Evans faded.
Veteran French rider Sandy Casar took the stage win in a bunch sprint after the breakaway he helped lead for much of the stage was caught by the explosive team of Schleck, Contador and Christophe Moreau. But it was the head-to-head action up Madeleine that provided the day’s most impressive strategy and action.
Schleck looks stronger to our big-screen eyes, but that may not be enough as Contador is a better time-trialist, which could give him the edge heading into Paris.
But that’s a long way off.
Right now the two have turned the Tour de France, which started with nearly 200 riders, into a two-man race. Andy leads, but by a scant 41 seconds — not enough to give him a clear edge.
MIA in today’s stage were a host of contenders, notably Evans in the yellow jersey. As Lance Armstrong did Sunday, Cadel (who also crashed badly Sunday) rode to survive, losing a massive 8 minutes to the race leaders and falling well off the pace in the overall classification.
We also expected more of a challenge from Ivan Basso, winner of this year’s Giro; Dennis Menchov, always a threat in climbing stages; and Alexander Vinokourov, Contador’s teammate but a gifted climber as well.
As for American hopes, with Armstrong’s fall they now rest on the capable but probably not yellow-ready shoulders of Levi Leipheimer, who finished 10th, more than 2 minutes behind. Levi is sixth overall, nearly 4 minutes out of the lead.
And Sammy Sanchez. the Olympic road champion, continues to show as a possible sleeper in this year’s Tour. He cracked on the descent — unusually so, since he’s an able downhiller — but is showing some chops in the mountain stages.
Watching the fast and switchbacky descent from Madeleine, we were reminded once again (as in this year’s Giro d’Italia) how inefficiently road racers tend to descend. Not that it typically matters, given the dynamics of stage racing, but a powerful and graceful descent is to our minds as thrilling as a faceoff on the ups.
Another punishing Alps stage — the Tour’s last — awaits the riders tomorrow.