There's hardly been a day when something of significance hasn't happened on this year's Tour de France, and today's short 109km run to Alpe d'Huez undoubtedly followed that pattern. Indeed, the final mountain stage of this year's race proved just as tense as the stage that had preceded it to the summit of the Galibier, with the overall contenders on the attack almost from the start and the action never letting up.
To add to the drama, the stage produced a totally unexpected winner. Although it had seemed that France had missed its last realistic chance of taking a stage win on this Tour, Pierre Rolland (Europcar) delivered one on the greatest cycling stage of all. In doing so, he became the first French rider to win on the Alpe since Bernard Hinault 25 years ago, showing both cleverness and strength as he outwitted and outpaced Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel) in the closing two kilometres. "I've imagined this dozens of times," said Rolland. "I kept my cool up against the two Spaniards who know each other so well and have been riding together since the start. It was double or nothing, but I didn't want to be second."
Alberto Contador of Spain and Team Saxo Bank Sungard finishes in third place but remains 03'55'' behind the race leader during Stage 19
First onto the packed slopes of Alpe d'Huez in the company of Garmin-Cervélo's Ryder Hesjedal, Rolland edged away from the Canadian, but could not respond when Contador caught and passed him with 12km still to the summit. The Spaniard's lead stretched quickly to more than half a minute, but Rolland began to cut into it after he had been joined by Euskaltel's Sánchez, who had come across from a group containing the Schleck brothers and Cadel Evans.
Heading into the final 5km Contador, who had initiated the first attacks from the yellow jersey group after just 15km into the stage and had been on the attack ever since, finally began to wilt and the pair chasing behind closed in.
With 2.5km left, they got up to the three-time Tour champion. It looked like the two Spanish friends would then work over the Frenchman, but Rolland didn't allow them the opportunity to do so. He wasted no time in making an attack, having cannily sat in behind Sánchez during the latter part of their pursuit to save his resources.
Contador initially responded but, after some weaving back and forth, Rolland went again and this time Contador failed to stay with the Europcar rider. Rolland surged on, crossing the line 11 seconds ahead of Sánchez to massive acclaim. To cap his achievement, the Rolland also moved into the white jersey of best young rider. "On the Galibier Thomas [Voeckler] told me: 'Don't worry about me any more.' I realized that I could play my own card. I wanted to get a gap going onto the final climb, which is an ascent I know extremely well. I climbed it 10 times during a training camp," said Rolland. "When I got to bend number one I knew that I could put it in the big ring and ride à bloc to the finish."
Second place on the day for Sánchez made him the first rider to confirm victory in one of the race's jersey competitions. With double points on offer for the mountains jersey, the Olympic champion, who was the winner at Luz-Ardiden and second at Plâteau de Beille, became a worthy winner of the polka-dot jersey.
"It is always matter of pride to be on the podium in Paris. And I now will be wearing a jersey of some prestige," said Sánchez. "It's a victory for me and for my team. I take it as a reward for all the work that has been done on this Tour.
"If I take stock, this Tour has been far from negative: I've won a beautiful stage to Luz Ardiden, taken the polka-dot jersey and finished in the top 10 of the Tour."
For Contador there was a degree of disappointment, but also some satisfaction having finally left his mark on a race that has not gone his way. "I attacked today in order to enjoy myself. Today was a different day for me because the pressure was over, so today was just about enjoying the race," said Contador. Asked if the Contador we saw in May at the Giro would have been more successful today, he smiled and replied: "Of course."
The yellow jersey battle opens up
Behind this trio, there was an equally gripping battle for the yellow jersey. After Voeckler had been dropped near the bottom of the climb following another hugely courageous effort to hang on to the lead, the Schleck brothers did all they could to drop Cadel Evans, but at no point were the Leopard-Trek duo able to distance the BMC leader.
Cadel Evans of Australia and BMC Racing Team crosses the line in fifth place alongside Peter Velits of Slovakia and Team HTC Highroad during Stage 19
Both Andy and Fränk made digs, but Evans stuck limpet-like to whichever one made a move, knowing that his best chance of victory would come in tomorrow's Grenoble time trial. The trio were part of a group that came in 57 seconds down on Rolland, with Andy Schleck clearly exhausted but having done enough to take the yellow jersey into tomorrow's crucial time trial. "Many riders say that the yellow jersey gives you wings and I hope that will be the case tomorrow," said the new race leader. "I couldn't have asked a writer to create a better Tour de France. It's all there – the suspense is perfect. I believe in myself for the time trial... I'll do a good ride. I think I can hold on to the yellow jersey. I've been chasing it for a while.
"I haven't been so close to winning the Tour before. My form is great and this is a realization of everything that I had in mind – of taking yellow in the Alps. Of course tomorrow is going to be a lot of hard work but I'm confident. I showed great form until now and I'll do the same again tomorrow."
However, Evans appeared to be the day's big winner on GC, having kept his deficit on Andy Schleck to 57 seconds and Fränk to a mere four. "The early attack from Contador was a really bold move. I was feeling pretty average, but I think there was something wrong with my rear wheel slowing me down a bit, I think it had moved in the frame a bit. But the team rode fantastically up to the steepest slopes of the Galibier," said Evans. "It all came back together eventually and we fought it out on Alpe d'Huez. Of course I'd like to have taken some time going into the time trial – I'd like to be in yellow with a lead of five minutes – but there are two of them and just one of me, and they wanted me to drag them up there. I didn't understand that.
"As for tomorrow, the tactic will be to start as fast as possible and finish as fast as possible and hope that that's enough."
More points lost in green jersey race as sprinters fail to make time cut
The one jersey that remained with the same rider who started in it this morning was the green. Although he once again finished outside the stage's time limit, but by only a handful of seconds, Mark Cavendish was in good company in a group of 60-odd riders.
Also in the group was his main rival for the points title, José Joaquín Rojas. Both men lost 20 points for finishing outside the time limit, leaving Cavendish with an advantage of 15 and in pole position as the race closes on Paris.
Contador springs an early surprise
The action began right from the moment the road first dropped away from the start line in Modane. A big group of 14 riders came together with 10km covered, with BMC and Saxo Bank both represented. But, as this group started to cooperate, the first move came from the pack behind them, and Alberto Contador, yesterday's biggest loser, was the man to make it.
The Spaniard's offensive with just 15km covered provoked a flurry of counters. Andy Schleck was quickly on his wheel. Evans had more of a struggle to jump across, but race leader Voeckler appeared initially to have missed the move. However, the Frenchman has shown before that he's got incredible tenacity, and he proved it once again by driving himself across to the Contador group. Basso's Liquigas-Cannondale team set the pace behind, with Fränk Schleck covered by some of his Leopard Trek teammates.
With 5km to the top of the Télégraphe, Contador attacked again, and this time neither Evans nor Voeckler could respond. Evans almost came to a halt as Contador and Andy Schleck sped clear. After stopping to check his bike, remounting, then stopping again to get a new machine, the Australian had lost so much ground that he opted to drop back to the Liquigas-led bunch behind.
Contador was quickly on and through most of the breakaway riders. As he pressed on with yesterday's Galibier winner Schleck, a number of riders stuck with them heading down the drop into Valloire and then onto the north side of the Galibier. On the easier initial slopes of this epic ascent, Contador's pace-making saw most of the breakaways drop back until only Rui Costa (Movistar) and Christophe Riblon (AG2R) were with them when the reached the Galibier's steeper ramps above 2000m.
Behind this group, Voeckler had stubbornly persisted with his pursuit. Yo-yoing between 20 and 30 seconds behind, the yellow jersey could often see his rivals ahead as the road switched back and forth. As riders dropped back from the lead group, Voeckler used them to get a bit of pace-setting relief, before taking up his chase again.
As the four leaders approached the summit, Andy Schleck offered occasional support to Contador's pace-making. The bunch behind started to break up, and for a time, BMC had taken over the pace-making from Liquigas, but just above Plan Lachat, where the road kicks up, Evans decided to take over on the front.
Just as had been the case on stage 18, few could follow the Australian's relentless grinding pace. He quickly closed in on Voeckler, who slowed to wait for the Australian's rapidly dwindling group, which included Fränk Schleck, Basso, Sánchez and, crucially, three of Voeckler's Europcar teammates.
Soon after Voeckler had settled into that group and begun to gather himself, Sánchez sprinted clear of it. No one initially countered the Olympic champion, but eventually Evans did respond, with Europcar duo Anthony Charteau and Pierre Rolland quick to track him. Unfortunately, though, their team leader Voeckler had almost run out of juice, and Charteau dropped back to pace him as Rolland pushed on apparently with the white jersey in his sights.
Andy Schleck led over the Galibier. Sánchez was 20 seconds down behind the Schleck group of four, with Evans at 34 seconds, just ahead of a gaggle of riders including Garmin's Tom Danielson and Hesjedal, Fränk Schleck, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Rolland. A minute further back, Voeckler once again had two teammates with him as the 40km descent to Bourg d'Oisans began.
Sánchez lived up to his reputation as a great descender by making it across to the five-strong front group. A second group formed around Evans. As numbers joined it and several riders committed to share the pace-making, they closed in on the five men ahead, catching them soon after crossing the dam at the bottom of the Chambon reservoir with 25km remaining.
For a while there was no organization at all in this group, allowing Voeckler's Europcar teammates to cut the gap between them substantially. The first attack from this front group came from Europcar's Rolland, who was joined by Hesjedal. While these two pushed clear, the main contenders toyed with each other, allowing Europcar to bring Voeckler back up to his key rivals just before the start of the climb to Alpe d'Huez.
Rolland and Hesjedal had a lead of 47 seconds going onto the Alpe, where a huge throng had massed. Behind them, after an overly fast lead-out on the opening ramps of the Alpe by Leopard's Jakob Fuglsang, the first key name to drop back was white jersey leader Taaramae. Crucially, Voeckler soon fell back too.
After Fuglsang's flurry, Contador attacked with 12.5km to go. Andy Schleck led a vain pursuit with Evans on his wheel, but the Spaniard was soon across to leading two. After a brief pause, he went again, with Rolland chasing. Determined to get clear, Contador attacked again with 11.5km remaining, and this time was free.
With 10.5km remaining, Sánchez brought a group containing Fränk Schleck up to his brother and Evans. Although Fränk Schleck attempted to put Evans in trouble, no one managed to break clear of this group until HTC's Peter Velits jumped away with 9km remaining, and with Sánchez chasing. The Spaniard soon passed Velits and moved up to Rolland. The pair then began to nibble into Contador's advantage.
With the crowds looking particularly uproarious on certain sections, Contador pressed on, lashing out at at least one overenthusiastic fan. But his biggest problem was not what was happening at the sides of the road, but the two riders closing in from behind. As they closed on the Saxo rider, Sánchez indicated for Rolland to come through, weaving a bit and trying to coerce the Frenchman to take a lead. Rolland declined, knowing they would soon be up to the stage leader and that he would then need everything that he had to give.
Rolland takes the stage and the white jersey
Rather than wait and give Contador a chance to gather himself, Rolland attacked just after Sánchez had made the junction with his compatriot. For a moment it looked like he had made his move too soon, but Contador couldn’t respond and with that the day would belong to Rolland, and once again Europcar. They'd lost yellow, but gained white and won the biggest stage of all.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.