Schleck makes up time, but the Tour's not over yet

July 22, 2011 - 3:15 AM
APTOPIX Cycling Tour De France

The pack climbs Izoard pass during the 18th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 200.5 kilometers (124.6 miles) starting in Pinerolo, Italy, and finishing on Galibier pass, Alps region, France, Thursday July 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

COL DU LAUTERET, France (AP) — Andy Schleck left three-time champion Alberto Contador behind, putting himself in prime position to win the Tour de France.

The Luxembourger still has to contend with Cadel Evans, the Australian who is desperate to improve on his two previous second-place finishes. Evans was less than a minute behind Schleck, with the Alpine climb and Saturday time-trial still to come — both stages in which Evans could conceivably make up time.

Schleck also has yet to quite see off the unexpected challenge of plucky Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who still held the leader's yellow jersey a week after he himself expected to lose it.

Voeckler was 15 seconds ahead of Schleck.

On Friday, the rider faced a 68-mile leg over the Galibier pass again — the 18th stage ended there Thursday — and then up the Alpe d'Huez, probably the most famous stage finish in cycle racing. The mountain is included in the Tour this year for the first time in three years.

Schleck made up for a bad day Tuesday by winning arguably the biggest stage of the Tour on Thursday at the top of the Galibier, the highest-altitude finish in the race's 108-year history.

"I told the team yesterday that I had this in mind. I wasn't going to be fourth in Paris," said the 26-year-old who second overall last year. "I said I'd risk it all. ... It's my character: I'm not afraid to lose."

Schleck's older brother, Frank, was second — 2:07 back.

Andy later tweeted his thanks to his brother "for being there 4 me." Frank responded that he was proud of being in the Leopard Trek team and "proud of being 2 brothers from Luxembourg."

Contador lost time on all his main rivals and acknowledged that he wouldn't win the race.

"Victory is impossible now," he said. "I had a bad day. My legs didn't respond and I just hit a wall. It was a very difficult day right from the start."

Voeckler, who has done far more than was expected of him in this race, fought right to the end to limit his losses, managing to keep with Evans almost until the end and finishing the line looking truly exhausted.

"Please, let me breathe," Voeckler said at the finish, mustering the strength to raise a fist in joy once he saw he'd kept the yellow jersey. "At 2,650 meters, the oxygen is thin."

It was even harder for many of the other riders. More than half the field finished so far behind Schleck that the riders would normally have been disqualified. Tour organizers invoked a rule that allowed them to stay in, but docked 20 points from all of them in the race for the green jersey of best sprinter.

That hit Mark Cavendish hardest. The Briton who has won four stages this year still holds the jersey with 200 points, but was only 15 points ahead of Jose Joaquin Rojas of Spain, who finished within the allowed time. Cavendish described the stage as "savage."