Finally, finally, it's business time. All over the roads of the Tour things are in motion. No more watching your rivals. No more guessing game. No more playing your minor cards. Show what you got.
1. Cadel Evans, BMC
Obviously this selection assumes no major changes tomorrow, which is durn near impossible to predict, at least as between Cadel and Andy Schleck. I doubt Evans will fully exorcise his Alpe d'Huez demons tomorrow, but he can certainly limit his losses, as he showed today. Evans saved his Tour in rather stunning fashion, nearly as stunning as the way in which he appeared to lose it over the previous hour or so. Pedalstroke-by-soul-crushing-pedalstroke, grindmaster Evans did what he so often has done in duress: turned himself inside out to claw back time on his rivals. Personally, if I were in charge of BMC, this would be the kit I'd cook up for him tomorrow:
Well, except for the name. Anyway, my confidence in Evans stems mostly from the time trial that looms over tomorrow's stage. Conventional wisdom is that Evans is good at them while Schlecklet is not. The data points are inconclusive, however. Last year Evans was injured at the Tour, and he wasn't going especially well in 2009 when he put a mere 31 seconds into Andy. Cuddles put 1.02 and 1.57 into Andy in the 2008 Tour ITTs... but Andy has improved a bit since then. Really, until we see what transpires tomorrow, the top step in Paris is a coin-flip.
2. Andy Schleck, Leopard-Trek
Today was an heroic romp by the rider taking the biggest slagging for his failure to ride with panache. Not that anyone else was riding with panache, but regardless, young Schleck rode a stage for the ages, one ripped from the textbook of how to be a Patron. If this is the start of things to come, the kid has a memorable career ahead of him. Win or lose, he has much to be proud of.
Problem is, he may also have dealt a deadly blow to the notion of riding with panache. Starting with 60km to go and over the course of 5km, on the forbidding slopes of the Col d'Izoard, Schleck put two minutes into his rivals with a vicious attack. While that gap ballooned out to well over four minutes at times, 55km later it was back to two minutes. So what did Schleck gain in that 55km when he pushed himself to the brink, coming undone in the final 2km of the Galibier? What if he had simply waited for the Galibier and attacked there? Chances are he would have garnered at least the two minute cushion he grabbed today without emptying the tank. Today he is telling himself that he wasn't afraid to lose, that his risks paid off, but we'll know more about that tomorrow. If he can grab another 30 seconds on Evans, he probably wins the Tour, but he can't do that in the closing 3km, when the course levels off and Evans can reel people in.
3. Frank Schleck, Leopard-Trek
Easily the most dangerous stage hunter for tomorrow, Frank got the armchair ride to the top of the Galiber today, scoring some seconds and other points, for what that's all worth. Big Bro is an elite climber, but he'd have to win the Alpe by at least three minutes to be taken seriously for the yellow jersey. As a cronoman, he makes his little brother look Cancellaresque. Still, Frank can (and mostly likely will) get up the road and put Evans in a vise again. Let Frank get too far and he wins; chase him down and Andy comes past him. Hopefully Lelangue is on the phone right now trying to buy Cadel a bit of help. As well as BMC have protected him to this point, Evans will be alone tomorrow.
4. Thomas Voeckler, Europcar
Brave Tommy, nobody expected to see him climbing to the holiest Tour de France summits with the maillot jaune on his back, but that's what is happening this week. It'll get even better tomorrow on the Alpe, as his "win or die trying" story will take on another (possibly much sadder) chapter. Nobody is ruling out a podium finish, and I suppose even the victory is still attainable. He has a long history of indifferent time trialling, but everything -- his form, his motivation, his career arc -- has changed utterly. Neither he nor Frank can count on that third podium step unless they carry at least a 30" advantage into Saturday. Since Tommy has 1.08 on Frank at the moment, Frank had better get to work.
5. Ivano Bassego, Liquipre
Eighteen stages and nearly 80 hours later, the two Italian stars Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso are deadlocked on the overall classification. Basso was a tad more resilient than Cunego today, and Basso has never lost to Cunego in a proper ITT (e.g., toss out the prologues). But screw it, I'm not giving up on the Kid. He has a pretty colorful record of big performances on iconic Tour stages, if not the GC itself. Remember the Alpe, 2006?
Tourbecco's Call: A lot of people are saying Andy answered his critics today. I wonder if the critics will apologize to him for losing the Tour. Probably not; they'll be too busy complaining about the winner.
1. Mark Cavendish, HTC
Believe it or not, he hasn't sewn up the competition just yet, holding off JJ Rojas by a mere 15 points. Tomorrow's sprint comes after the Galibier, so the green comes down to the finale and the intermediate sprint on Sunday, both on the wide boulevard of the Champs Elysees. Cavendish seems likely to win regardless, but he has some work to do.
2. JJ Rojas Gil, Movistar
In 14 Tour de France sprints, Rojas beat Cav once, when Cav missed the finale. Rojas has been the ultimate green warrior, particularly under the old system, as Irish Peloton demonstrated in a fanpost earlier this week. But Cavendish has shown his own resiliency, winning stages where he's had to go all-out after the intermediate sprints too. Rojas may be more versatile, but he simply isn't faster, and his versatility stopped being a meaningful edge when the race crested the Colle d'Agnello.
3. Philippe Gilbert, Omega Pharma-Lotto
It's not much of a competition if it rates anyone ahead of Philippe Gilbert. Speaking of world championships, Gilbert's green assault has been lovely to watch, but has he really had a better Tour than Hushovd? Nope.
Tourbecco's Call: Saying that Rojas has a mathematical chance of winning is a way of pointing out how much math sucks.
Maillot a Pois
1. Andy Schleck, Leopard-Trek
Schleck's win today, combined with his early cresting of the Izoard, bumped him from nowhere to within four points of the lead, a total that looks pretty paltry compared to the 20 points available in tomorrow's Galibier crossing and the 40 waiting on top of Alpe d'Huez. Basically, the spotty jersey will be a visually awesome consolation prize for some not-so-lucky climbing stud. Or it'll get covered over in yellow. Anyway, the winner will be someone we won't complain about.
2. Samuel Sanchez, Euskaltel
Samu actually has two points on Andy, and better still, he's shown some interest in the thing. With his podium dreams dead, Sanchez can focus again on the KOM. Not that I expect him to finish ahead of Andy -- which is what he really needs here -- but if it's a cagey race tomorrow, Samu is the only one of the Bigs who would trade a late stage attack for a time trial disaster on Saturday.
3. Jelle Vanendert, Omega Pharma
Forecast calls for a 100% chance of early breaking away, followed by desperate marking of the Schlecks and Sanchez on the unforgiving slopes of the Alpe. Like Voeckler, he'll go down looking sharp.
Tourbecco's Call: Yo, Van in dirt, you're from Belgium. This is Dutch Mountain. Thanks for playing.
1. Rein Taaramae, Cofidis
Possibly the most thrilling classification there is, if you're into watching the youngsters. [Note to Albertina, if you're done with the fainting couch, Vlaanderen90 could use it.] Taaramae inherits the jersey today after Uran blew up on the Galibier, and the Estonian has earned it. Taaramae was an early favorite (once Gesink crashed), and has steadily clawed his way up the classification with a solid effort today. Being a truly solid cronoman should cover whatever weaknesses show in his game tomorrow... unless he blows up completely.
2. Pierre Rolland, Europcar
Two strikes against Taaramae's closest challenger: he is a poor time trialler, and he'll be on maillot jaune protection duty yet again tomorrow. But France has its new climbing sensation. At least until expectations destroy him too.
3. Rigoberto Uran, Sky
Another sentimental favorite, given the history of Colombian climbers at the Tour, Uran gave it all he had today. But conceding five minutes kills that hope.
Tourbecco's Call: Just a fantastic competition, and my hat's off to Rolland and Taaramae. What, you thought I would snark the kids? How big a chump do you think I am?
1. Garmin Cervelo -- I suppose AG2R could sneak back in here, down 10.30, with Roche, Peraud and Dupont chasing Danielson, VandeVelde and Hesjedal. But I'd rather spend this time talking about how Leopard would be running away with this if Linus Gerdemann weren't so worthless.
Tourbecco's Call: I'm supposed to follow that?
1. Fabio Sabatini, Liquigas -- Great battle between him and Andrey Amador of Movistar, who is only 2.06 up on the leader. Unfortunately, Amador has probably run out of road. Tomorrow's stage is only 109km long, which means the time cutoff for the autobus will be very, very tight. So instead of losing to Sabatini, Amador's only hope is to earn the jersey the most meaningful way -- by having your rival get kicked out of the race and the jersey defaulting to you.
Tourbecco's Call: I love more competitions. In fact, I think they should make this part of a revived combined competition, including the yellow jersey. The guy who is closest to both the top and the bottom wins.