Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt

And we thought we’d seen surprising riding.

To this point in my life, today’s stage 18 is the single most thrilling single stage of what has already been the single most surprising and dramatic Tour de France in memory.

Lest anyone have harbored any doubts that this was the most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France in a generation, today served as the incontrovertible evidence that we haven’t seen a Tour this wide-open since most of the audience started school. To quantify the number of variables still in play that could determine the final podium of the Tour de France hardly seems possible. I’ll put it in perspective this way: Were this a Hollywood script, the Schleck brothers would be condensed into a single character and Basso and Cunego would have been written out of the storyline in the Pyrenees, along with Contador. Voeckler, Evans and just one Schleck is about the maximum that the average Hollywood script doctor will accept. Tinseltown prefers its conflicts binary, just like football.

Those many storylines are what make stage 18 superior to Greg LeMond’s victory in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France (or any other stage of that year’s Tour), Floyd Landis’ reversal-of-fortune ride to Morzine, dare I say, even Lance Armstrong’s 2003 win atop Luz Ardiden on a broken bike.

Armstrong went into that stage with only 15 seconds on Jan Ullrich and 18 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. However, The Euskaltel duo of Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo were more than four minutes back and guaranteed to lose boatloads of time in the final time trial, so everyone watching knew there were only three guys who could win the Tour.

Going into today’s stage less than four minutes separated the top eight on GC. By this point in the race, we don’t ordinarily have so many riders seemingly in contention.

Here was the GC this morning before the start:


Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar



Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team



Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek



Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek



Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi



Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard



Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD



Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale



Tom Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo



Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky Procycling



Of the top eight, only Cunego and Basso really had ceased to be spoken of with the reverent tones reserved for potential victors. Each of the top six were a storyline unto themselves. Voeckler was defying the odds. Evans was riding like a potential winner. Fränk Schleck was the one of Leopard-Trek’s one-two punch. Brother Andy was the whiny but gifted climber who made the threat of his brother so dangerous. Sammy Sanchez was strong, courageous, unpredictable and … willing to work for Contador. And Contador, though he seemed not to be his usual self, was still too strong to be disregarded.

The younger Schleck’s attack may have worked for one simple reason: Contador didn’t have the legs to respond. Had he been stronger, it seems likely he wouldn’t have allowed last year’s bridesmaid to ride up the road, so strong is the rivalry between the two. Following his terrible descending in the rain on stage 15, Schleck did a fair drop down the Col d’Izoard on his way to catching teammate Maxime Monfort; that alone made his attack redemptive.

For years, the GC race at the Tour has been derided because the players wait for the final climb and then attack with everything they have. At last, with Schleck’s attack, we saw an act of courage, where in his own words he was “all in.” Schleck even admitted that the ride could have gone either way

We’ve entered an era where the afterburner attacks must be used rarely and late in the stage, if at all. The question of what we’re left with as options was answered less by Schleck than the old fox, Francesco Moser, who we are told spent some time with the brothers last night. Though Moser never triumphed at the Tour, he knows a thing or two about wily victories.

Can we give Moser some sort of prize for helping to animate the race? In truth, he did little more than remind the Schlecks of how Grand Tours were won during the age of Merckx. Tonight, all the contenders will go to bed seeing this race with new eyes.

It took guts and determination for Evans to tow the shrinking peloton the way he did. It’s an inglorious path to victory, but he has proven he won’t go surrender to anyone. And for those who wonder why he allowed Andy to ride up the road, when he was clearly such a threat, it was the smartest thing he could do with brother Fränk sitting on his wheel. A counterattack by Fränk could have destroyed Evans’ ambitions, which are only currently wounded.

Both Voeckler and Contador have conceded defeat, the latter just this afternoon, the former every day since he donned the jersey. What’s comical here is how we have every reason to believe Contador and zero reason to believe Voeckler. Never in the Tour de France has a rider spoken more derisively of his chances while riding with such determined ferocity. He’s not giving up and the only thing coming out of his mouth that we can trust is carbon dioxide.

Perhaps the most mysterious ride of the day was delivered by Voeckler’s teammate, Pierre Rolland. As the one teammate left in the lead group on the Galibier, he would have been an obvious choice to help Evans with pace making. Based on his one trip to the front, it seemed that he didn’t have the horsepower to help much, but I suspect there was an additional force at work. Should an additional attack have come (that one didn’t says a lot about how infernal Evans’ pace was), Rolland was there to help pace Voeckler back to the leaders. He was the proverbial ace up the sleeve, as proven by the fact that he finished sixth on the stage.

Only 1:12 separates four riders with a classic Alpine stage to go. Unfortunately for Thomas Voeckler, even if he doesn’t lose a second to either Schleck on l’Alpe d’Huez, he is likely to lose at least a minute to Andy in the time trial. Last year Voeckler—with no pride or classification on the line—gave up almost three minutes to Schleck in the final, 52km, ITT. Even if he rides out of his skin on this 41km test, preserving his lead seems unlikely.

That’s a shame. A spot on the podium is an inadequate reward for Voeckler’s revelatory ride, his tenacity, his poker, his leap of faith in himself.

But the real man of the day is Andy Schleck, who presented himself to us today as a man of real courage, a man of daring. Of course, Schleck’s daring is minor when compared to what Contador attempted. If Alberto-freakin’-Contador can’t pull off the Giro-Tour double at the age of 28, with six consecutive Grand Tour wins under his belt, then I say we are unlikely to see it accomplished again. Armstrong knew not to attempt such a sweep. Will this chasten Contador from trying again? And what does this spell for his relationship with Riis?

With three days to go, only one thing seems certain: Whoever stands atop the podium in Paris will have earned our respect on their way to a deserved win.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International




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  1. amityskinnyguy

    There has never been such an engaging Tour in my cycling lifetime which began shortly after the legendary Lemond win in ’89. Wow. I can’t wait to see what happens. And here I was, ready to give up on pro cycling…

  2. parlorbikes

    Mr. Thomas is the man right now.

    A French superhero in the making.

    Heart as big as Mr. C’dish’s head.

    Thor de France for the Norway crowd.

    Fabulous riding so far, and more to come.

  3. grolby

    An excellent post about a spectacular day of racing. I do have one quibble – I don’t think there is anything inglorious about Evans’ chase, if it turns out to have saved his Tour (or, indeed, if it hasn’t). Evans was the only GC favorite (except for Frank Schleck, of course) who proved willing or able to give chase. He took the race into his own hands and utterly shamed the other so-called contenders. Even Tommy V, who for all of his panache and grit, is also racing in a very calculated way. And it’s not there is anything wrong with being calculated, but being unwilling to fight for victory doesn’t do much honor to something like the Tour. In any event, it seems pretty clear that the Schlecks and Evans are the strongest men in the race, and they’ve earned themselves their places on the podium today. After nine days of grimly defending the yellow jersey, Tommy V has earned it too, if he can make it happen.

    Anyway, I do think Evans’ ride counts for glory – whether by strength of legs or strength of character, he made the strongest possible statement that he is here to try and win. It was indescribably wonderful to see him riding with that kind of conviction. He’s been a class act throughout this Tour, and has me now thoroughly in his camp. Andy Schleck has convinced me, too, after that ride, but no one has seemed hungrier or more deserving to me than Cadel Evans.

  4. MCH

    A couple of days ago, I posted my hope for a do-or-die, go-for-broke, long-ass attack. I was looking for a display of guts, panache, and daring. I never, ever expected to see it from Andy. The fact that he did it still surprises me. All I can say is that what he did today was big-time gutsy, and as a result super impressive. He’s got my respect again. Now, if he would just quit whining about descents ;-). I like racing in the post PED (dare I say that) era.

  5. LD

    With regards to the Contador double (or even triple) Grand Tour attempts I wonder how much of it was Riis’s bold way of getting and keeping his primary sponsors on board for this year. Remember, Saxo Bank was about to exit stage left before Contador became too enticing of a Saxo Bank rider for them to walk away. It has been odd to see the Saxo Bank team for want of a better term in disarray. Contador has always been isolated in this race and always getting into trouble. His team mates have never really been there for him. (Not that he has always needed them.) I now see the CAS handing down a ban whereas had he won this race I bet they would overlooked a suspension. I too was impressed with the Schleck attack and most surprised to see it stick. He’s a talented rider but it still takes two Schlecks to beat everyone else. I remain a huge fan of AC and still think he is the most talented Stage racer in decades, however. He’ll be back.

  6. P Poppenjay

    Yes, excellent post, beginning with the great quote from Teddy.
    Regarding a man with a leap of faith, I am reminded of a quote
    I gave my dear friend Brian many years ago: ‘Leap and the net appears’.
    May Thomas keep the faith.

  7. TSH

    Wow. The memories of ‘a generation of Tours’ is three Americans. Yesterday was depressing for the very same reason those three rides were depressing: they were performed on the back of a massive amount of drugs. How can the same article mention Landis’s ride and not call into question the veracity of Schleck’s ride. When a rider stands up and rides away for 60km from the best riders on the planet, at that pace, without eyes popping, chest heaving or a spit stained chin we all know what is going on (Rasmussen 2007?). I’m all for believing, but really, lets take our fingers out of our ears and stop saying ‘lalalala’ at the tops of our voices. Two speed Tours are still well and truly with us.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the terrific comments.

      TSH: My memory of the Tour extends to the time of Merckx, before there were any Americans at the race. Regardless, perhaps you missed this post:


      If your outlook on cycling is so negative, perhaps you’d be happier watching American football, where they are neither troubled by nor attempting to clean up doping.

  8. Corey

    Nice post. And I was just starting to lament that this Tour was going to be won by a rider without a single stage win. Glad Andy went big today – certainly courageous.

    Now on a less serious note – how did Robin Williams drop all that weight, hold the yellow and learn such good French?

  9. randomactsofcycling

    Last night’s stage certainly surprised the hell out of me and I for the first time, say ‘chapeau’ to Andy Schleck for his bravado. It’s the first time in a long time I have been on the edge of my seat watching a GT stage and I cannot remember ever looking forward so eagerly to the next two stages.
    This was a show of fitness, talent and some tactical acumen. Bravo to Team Schleck. And to see Evans ride literally everyone else off his wheel was a display that also deserves praise.

    However I wonder if some of us watched the same race? Andy Schleck could barely turn the pedals at the summit finish and Thomas Voeckler could not get off the bike without assistance from his soigneur. I’m all for believing too and I think this is the cleanest race in years.

  10. Adam

    Andy’s been one of my favorite riders ever since I saw him ride to 2nd overall in his first grand tour. the last 24 hours have seen forums full of suspicious comments about his performance, but to all those I’d say go watch his LBL win from 2009 or his assault on the Tourmalet last year – yesterday didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d also add that to all who wrote him off at Tour de Suisse that he knew then he was going to do this – he had himself in two breaks that week and essentially did all the work.
    If he does manage to win on Sunday he’ll be the first Tour winner to have also won a Monument since Fignon.

  11. TSH

    I believe it’s the cleanest race in years too. But after living and breathing this caper for 30 years, I can’t look at a ride like Schleck’s and say it was on the back of bravado or guts. To believe that would mean I have never raced a bicycle or know nothing of physiology. And Voeckler…gutsy? Wheel sucking is what I would call it. The fact that he managed to hold yellow doesn’t make him gutsy. There has to be honour involved if one is to be called gutsy, surely. This Tour is long on tear jerking, stunning moments of truth and theatre but for mine, Schleck and Voeckler on the Queen Stage were not two of them. This does not make me a cynic, on the contrary. Evans’s ride was one of the best performances I have ever seen on a bike. It had everything this sport has at its heart (and that this blog does a fine job of articulating): guts, fear, loneliness, anger, resilience, individuality. But I think we all agree on that.

  12. Robot

    Schleck’s ride was extremely impressive. I, for one, am just relieved to watch him attacking rather than waiting to react. Having said that, and in part response to TSH, Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort had a small hand in making that dream a reality. LeOpard-Trek put TWO riders up the road to aid Andy on his way. It was a brilliant tactical scheme that came off perfectly. Schleck rode big, but he also rode the wheels of teammates. This was NOT Landis’ attack.

  13. cormw

    Great post! I was so taken by that performance I had to watch it twice! I cannot believe Andy finally put in a big attack like that, what a race!

  14. grolby

    Lest we forget, in addition to having the help of two teammates, Andy Schleck had put about two and a half minutes into Voeckler, not the seven or eight that Landis pulled back entirely on his own in 2006. It was a ride that seemed within Schleck’s possibilities, and it has been suggested that a cleaner era of racing may more readily allow for long-range attacks, focused on endurance rather than relying upon being explosive. Is that true? I’m not sure; but we’ve seen the big moves in this race being about who can work hard and stick it out, rather than who can punch it the hardest on the final climb. And they are going up these climbs a LOT slower than they did in the Armstrong era.

  15. armybikerider

    I’ve been disappointed with the way that A. Schleck in particular had been riding and “attacking” in the earlier stages. It seemed that his head was on a swivel and as soon as he would stand up on the pedals he would immediately look around to see what everyone else was doing. To a lesser degree Evans and the rest were riding this way too.

    One of the first things I was taught in school-boy athletics was to never look behind but always always always focus on the what’s ahead and continue to drivce forward (possibly a metaphor for life as well?).

    FINALLY, Schleck rode yesterday with none of the head turning or worrying about everyone else.

    I’m not a A. Schleck fan, but I finally have to give him credit for his ride on Thursday.

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