Friday, July 22, 2011

A Man and a Mountain

Yesterday, Andy Schleck invoked both the great memory of Eddie Merckx and the tainted not-yet-distant-enough memory of Floyd Landis. Desperate for time gaps as this year's Tour de France winds down, Schleck left his competitors behind and climbed into the sky. Twice.

Attacks come on the big mountains in the Tour all the time. The yellow jersey is not won in Normandy, nor is it won on the Champs Elysees. The yellow jersey is won on the summit finishes of the Pyrenees and the Alps. It is traditional, even expected, for the man who would be king to hit his rivals with everything he has on the final climb of a long day, forcing them to rise to his challenge, and if they cannot, leaving them behind and riding on to glory. But to attack with 60 kilometers (37 miles) and two monster climbs to go is a combination of inspiring, psychotic, brilliant, and ludicrous. And yet that is what Andy Schleck did yesterday.

And it worked.

Yesterday, on the Col d'Izoard, Andy kicked, rode up to the summit, down into the valley below, and then climbed to the highest finish the Tour has ever seen on the legendary Col du Galibier. When he left the group of leaders behind, his main rivals looked at each other, decided he was crazy and would never make it to the end, that they would be able to reel him in, and let him go. But on this day, Andy Schleck would not be caught. By the time his chief rivals, fellow two-time runner-up Cadel Evans and three-time (two-time defending) champion Alberto Contador, realized that they were not going to catch him without a massive push of their own, it was far too late. But Evans, not willing to simply concede, started his own push, dragging the entire group with him up the slopes of the Galibier.

And then, Contador cracked. The Spanish rider, often recognized as the greatest climber in the world, sitting under a cloud of doping suspicion and still trying to recover from his win in the Giro d'Italia, simply could not do any more. In the final stretch of the climb up the Galibier, Contador slid away from Evans, then-race leader Thomas Voeckler, and Frank Schleck, Andy's older brother who had been content to simply ride along. Even as his strength gave out and he slowed near the summit, Andy Schleck pulled within 15 seconds of leading the Tour de France, putting nearly a minute on Cadel Evans, and ending Alberto Contador's hopes for a second Grand Tour in a row.

Today, Andy and Frank Schleck and Cadel Evans rode together over the Galibier and finished together at the summit of Alpe d'Huez. Contador was able to pull back some time, but not enough to make a difference. Andy now will ride tomorrow's individual time trial in yellow, and set up a three way battle for the top of the podium. The time trial is a discipline at which Cadel Evans is viewed as being by far the best of the three remaining challengers.

But yellow does strange things to a cyclist. Evans has been here before, with Contador the weak time trialist. But riding an inspired race, Contador retained the jersey and the honor. And the next year, Carlos Sastre did the same thing. And the last two and a half weeks saw two men go above and beyond what could have been expected of them to stay in yellow. Voeckler, who is by no means a climber, stayed in yellow through every high mountain stage save this one, something he should never have been able to do. And Thor Hushovd, a sprinter by training, kept the race leader's jersey over the first few climbing stages of the competition.

But this is not about Hushovd or Voeckler. This is not about Evans or Contador. This is about Andy Schleck putting in a ride that might actually, honestly, and truthfully be what Landis did with chemical aid. To see a man climb up a rock wall into the sky is an inspiring sight. To see him fly away from the men who have kept a keen eye on him for every mile of every day for three weeks is incredible. To see a proud man like Alberto Contador crack is all but unprecedented. And to see Cadel Evans working so hard to finally move up to the top step, seeing in his face that he knows his only chance is in his own strength, and knowing, deep down, that it just might not be enough is heartbreaking.

The Tour de France ends Sunday in Paris, but for all intents and purposes, it is decided tomorrow in Grenoble, in the individual time trial. The "race of truth" always infuses drama into the race, and this year, when there is already enough drama to go around, it isn't even needed. But I wouldn't trade a week of ITTs for another stage like yesterday. For me, it is all about the man and the mountain.

So this is my salute to Andy Schleck. Here's to an incredible ride. No matter what happens tomorrow and Sunday, he has secured his place in the history of the Tour de France.

Now go out and win this thing.