Tour's final alpine stage promises fireworks
The legendary Col de la Madeleine promises to host an epic battle between the yellow jersey challengers on the Tour de France Tuesday as the race prepares to leave the Alps.
Yet even before the 25.5km ascension of the mountain pass, Australia's race leader Cadel Evans' tactical nous could be pushed to the limit.
Evans took possession of the yellow jersey after Sunday's eighth stage, the first real day of climbing on the race, when yellow jersey rival Andy Schleck attacked in the final kilometre to claim the stage honours.
Saxo Bank leader Schleck is now only 20sec behind the Australian in second overall, with Spain's reigning champion Alberto Contador in third at 1min 01sec.
Schleck's attack, which both Contador and Evans failed to counter, showed that perhaps has the edge when it comes to climbing.
However the Luxembourger has indicated that he will avoid trying to take responsibility for the race by taking the yellow jersey from Evans too early - if it boosts his chances later in the race.
"Maybe I would have taken the yellow jersey, but my aim is to have it when the race finishes in Paris," he said.
"And to do that, we have to go step by step."
The climb over the Col de la Madeleine on Tuesday's ninth stage could be the theatre of dreams for some, and cause nightmares for others.
Yet even before then, the peloton will have ample time to suffer.
After an easy 2.1km climb over the Cote de Chatillon at the 16km mark the peloton tackles the category one Col de la Colombiere. It is 16.5km long at an average gradient of 6.7 percent, and will be approached by its most difficult side.
Next up is the Col des Aravais, 7.6km at 5.9 percent, and the Col des Saisies, 14.4km at 5.1 percent, before the long descent to the foot of the Madeleine.
The long 25.5km climb at an average of 6.2 percent makes it the first unclassified (hors categorie) ascension of the race. From the summit at an altitude of 2000 metres, a 21km descent leads the peloton into the Maurienne valley where they still have to race 11 km to the finish.
After Sunday's eighth stage, the battle for the yellow jersey is now virtually a three-horse race, especially since the collapse of seven-time champion Lance Armstrong on Sunday.
Perhaps Armstrong, an excellent downhiller, could be tempted into making amends, and thus reduce his significant deficit of 13:26 to Evans.
Contador said: "It seems he (Armstrong) lost a lot of time, although there's still a lot of stages for him to attack."
Schleck my biggest rival, says Contador
Two-time champion Alberto Contador believes Andy Schleck will be his biggest yellow jersey rival in the remaining mountain stages of the Tour de France.
Contador sits third overall at 1min 01sec behind new race leader Cadel Evans of Australia, who has a 20sec lead on Schleck following the Luxembourger's victory on stage eight in the Alps.
Schleck's attack in the final kilometre of the 14km climb to Avoriaz on Sunday left Contador's group, which also contained Evans and several other contenders, struggling to counter.
They eventually finished 10secs behind Schleck, and after the first real mountain stage of the race Contador has seen enough to believe that climbing faster than the Saxo Bank leader will be his biggest challenge this year.
"Last year he (Schleck) gave me a few problems and this year he will be my biggest rival," said the Spaniard, who won the race in 2007 and 2009.
"When the attacks started (on the last climb) it wasn't easy for me to counter, then Schleck attacked. I tried to follow him but when I saw they'd taken a small lead I decided to sit up.
"In the end we lost a few seconds but overall it was a good result."
Contador's Astana team set most of the attacking pace on the race's last two climbs Sunday, a tactic employed to drop rivals and which proved fatal for some.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who suffered a hip injury in one of his several crashes on the stage, could not close the gap and was left trailing to finish almost 12 minutes adrift, his Tour campaign now virtually over.
Schleck, like Evans and many other favourites, was left with no teammates to help him as Contador's Astana team kept numbers up front until the final few kilometres of the stage.
The Spaniard said Astana had done great work in trying to put time into their rivals, and that as of Tuesday's final day in the Alps they will look for a repeat.
"We took responsibility for the race because we saw that Lance (Armstrong) was behind and that all the rest (of the field) were struggling.
"It seems he (Armstrong) lost a lot of time although there's still a lot of stages for him to attack. After the rest day, I hope we can be just as effective."
Armstrong, on his final Tour campaign, is now 39th overall at 13:26 behind Evans.
Contador now has sympathy and admiration for Armstrong
Alberto Contador said watching Lance Armstrong suffer during the Tour de France's tough eighth stage left him feeling sympathy, as well as admiration, for the American.
Armstrong endured arguably his worst day of his career on the race when he crashed several times Sunday before trailing home almost 12 minutes behind stage winner Andy Schleck.
The American's bid for an eighth yellow jersey is now virtually over, a situation which, surprisingly, provoked feelings of sympathy from old foe Contador.
"When I saw (the stage) on television I thought about all the things he'd accomplished in his career," Contador, the reigning champion, said during the race's first rest day Monday.
"He really had a lot of bad luck, but still you don't like to see a champion end up like that. I admire Armstrong, but maybe even more now than before."
Contador's remarks come as a surprise less than a year after he said he had never admired the American, and never will.
Cancer survivor Armstrong won the race seven years in a row from 1999-2005, after which he retired before making a second comeback in 2009.
Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 with Armstrong's former team Discovery Channel before they pulled out of cycling. The Spaniard joined Astana for 2008, but that year the team were not invited to the race - a sanction for their exclusion in 2007 when Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.
When Armstrong made his return to the sport in 2009, it was with Astana - who were under new management. However Contador and Armstrong's cohabitation at the 2009 race was a tense affair. Contador was the team leader, but Armstrong could not resist the temptation to show his own ambitions, leading to a division of loyalties in the team.
Armstrong eventually finished third overall last year as Contador went on to claim his second victory with a lead of over four minutes on Luxembourger Andy Schleck.
After the race, tension transformed into a brief war of words with Contador saying that although Armstrong "is a great rider and had a great Tour, on a personal level I have never admired him and never will".
Luckless Gerrans ruled out of Tour with broken arm
Australian Simon Gerrans has been ruled out of the Tour de France after X-rays showed he has a broken arm, Team Sky said on Monday.
Gerrans was caught up in a crash just seven kilometres into Sunday's eighth stage over 189km from the Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz, the first real climbing stage of the race.
The Australian battled bravely to the summit finish of Avoriaz and was later taken to hospital for X-rays on his left elbow which confirmed the bad news.
Gerrans told www.teamsky.com: "Obviously I'm very disappointed - I've had the sort of Tour de France you'd rather forget.
"I'm absolutely gutted that I'm not going to be able to help the other guys over the next two weeks."
Although slated at the start of the race to help Britain's Bradley Wiggins in his bid for a podium finish, Gerrans' race has been one to forget.
A winner of stages in all three Grand Tours, Gerrans was one of the many riders who fell on stage two from Brussels to Spa and then crashed again the following day.
That second crash had resulted in a trip to hospital to check he hadn't fractured his cheekbone after he fell on his pedal when hitting the road.
Sporting several stitches and a black eye he was able to continue the race but this latest news means Team Sky will now be down to eight riders when the Tour resumes on Tuesday.
Australian world champion Cadel Evans, of BMC, leads the race with a 20sec on yellow jersey challenger Andy Schleck, with Spain's reigning champion Alberto Contador, of Astana, third at 1min 01sec.
Wiggins is currently 14th overall at 2min 45sec behind Evans.
Schleck mum as Riis announces new sponsor
Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis announced a new co-title sponsor for his team Monday as Tour de France contender Andy Schleck refused to speculate on his possible departure from the team.
Saxo Bank announced last year that they would end their funding of Riis's outfit at the end of 2010.
And after a long drawn-out search the Dane, who two years ago admitted to taking performance-enhancing products to win the world's biggest bike race in 1996, appears to have found a replacement in Sungard.
Sungard is an information technology (IT) company which is already one of the team's several sponsors and their arrival means Riis's team are guaranteed "another two-years" of survival.
"Sungard are ready to step up, and they will be a very important sponsor for us for next year - as a co-title sponsor. We have made an agreement with another company, as a co-title sponsor," said Riis.
"I cannot announce the name right now, because of the business strategy for this company. This has to be done later."
Schleck, who is rumoured to be leaving Saxo Bank with his brother Frank for an as yet unnamed team to be run by former Saxo Bank sports director Kim Andersen, said he would not speculate on such a move.
"I'm happy for Bjarne, but I'm not here to speculate on my future," said the Luxembourger.
Schleck's brother Frank crashed out of the race on stage three.
Ahead of the final day in the French Alps on Tuesday, the Luxembourger, who won the eighth stage to Avoriaz, sits second overall at 20sec behind race leader Cadel Evans of Australia.
Seeing Armstrong suffer seals Moreau decision to retire
French cycling veteran Christophe Moreau said watching Lance Armstrong suffer in the Alps of the Tour de France helped in his decision to retire from the sport.
The 39-year-old Caisse d'Epargne rider is one of the oldest cyclists still competing in the professional peloton and is currently racing the Tour de France where he is way off the pace in 68th overall.
Armstrong endured one of his worst ever days on the race Sunday when he crashed several times before trailing in almost 12 minutes behind stage winner Andy Schleck.
Moreau told France Info radio Monday: "Armstrong had his worst ever day on a bike yesterday (Sunday). When I saw that, it made me realise I was making the right decision to retire."
The future of Caisse d'Epargne is also uncertain, making Moreau's decision almost a formality. But he was quick to thank his team for allowing him to extend his career after he almost hung up his bike two years ago.
"Now I can really focus on my family," added Moreau, who moved to the team in 2009 from Agritubel.
"But before I do that I really want to go out of the Tour in a flurry, and see if I can do the same the rest of the season. It's up to me to create a few opportunities for myself."
Moreau is a former two-time winner of the Dauphine Libéré stage race.
He also wore the Tour de France yellow jersey after winning the prologue in 2001, and finished fourth in 2000.
© AFP 2010