Stage 18 saw Shleck mount a furious attack early in the stage, that clawed him to within seconds of the maillot jaune. I’m sure thousands of Shleck fans were screaming with joy, i was lamenting the loss of Voeckler’s, until now, reasonably comfortable lead. A stage like yesterday’s though just goes to show how 2 or 3 minutes doesn’t actually equate to a lot when the big guns turn on the gas!
Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was among the last riders to put up resistance to Andy Schleck’s winning ride, but the Irishman admitted that he was powerless to do anything other than attempt to hold Schleck’s wheel on the lower slopes of the Col du Galibier.
Roche was part of the early 14-man break that formed ahead of the Col Agnel, and he forged clear with Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) and Maxime Monfort (Leopard Trek) over the Izoard. On the descent, they were joined by Schleck, who had bridged across alone.
“We saw Andy coming back up,” Roche told L’Équipe. “He was impressive. He didn’t ask us to ride. He knew very well what he had to do.”
In spite of the stiff headwind that buffeted the riders in the valley between the Izoard and the Galibier, Schleck did not require any help from Roche or Iglinsky even after his teammate Monfort had swung over. With 10km to go on the climb, Roche had to give best to Schleck’s relentless pressing, and Iglinsky lasted only a little longer.
“Even if he had asked me to help, I would have been incapable even of taking a symbolic turn,” Roche admitted. “I was already very happy just to be able to stay on his wheel given that he was going so fast.”
After being out in front for almost 150km, Roche understandably struggled on the steep upper section of the Galibier after losing sight of Schleck.
“I totally exploded in the last two kilometres,” he explained. “I think that they made a mistake with the signs, because that must have been at least 2.5km. I really couldn’t go any more.”
Roche ultimately finished 19th on the stage, and moved up to 19th place overall, although he explained that the general classification was no longer his primary concern. After his 15th place finish last year, Roche had aimed to break the top 10 in 2011.
For BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans, his yellow-jersey dreams forced him to go to the limit, ignoring those just following his wheel, to close the gap on Schleck from 4:24 to 2:15 in the last (and steepest) 11km of the Galibier climb. That superlative effort eliminated Spanish challengers Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez from the podium stakes and left the fighting Aussie within 57 seconds of Schleck.
Shleck in the post stage interviews; “I told the team yesterday that I had this in mind. I wasn’t going to be fourth in Paris,” Schleck said of his place in the standings as the stage began. “I said I’d risk it all and it worked well.”
“It’s my character: I’m not afraid to lose,” he said. “Tomorrow is another day, and I hope to have the yellow jersey.”
Standing next to Schleck, Voeckler — who has repeatedly insisted that he cannot win when the race finishes tomorrow in Paris — said: “You’ll get it.”
“Please let me breathe,” an exhausted Voeckler told journalists at the finish, mustering the strength to raise a fist in joy once he saw he had kept the yellow jersey.
“At 2,650m, the oxygen is thin. I limited the damage,” he added. “I went all out.”
Come on Voeckler, you can do it, one more day in the mountains, then it’s all down hill…….kinda!!