The Tour de France hurtles precipitously toward Paris, and the contenders for the Yellow Jersey have one more chance to seize victory in this most unpredictable race. Saturday's stage is a 42.5 kilometer individual time trial in Grenoble. After the hard race through the mountains, the riders will race the clock with the overall victory still far from decided.
The Tour de France comes down to this: One rider, one bike, racing alone in the wind, the inexorable ticking of the clock driving him faster, ever faster. After three weeks of racing, Saturday will decide who will wear the Yellow Jersey in Paris.
The Grenoble time trial follows a circular trace and includes two short climbs. The climbs are not enough to give the climbers much advantage, though. The elevation gain is only around 200 meters for each. The final 15 kilometers are false-flat descending to a flat finish. The second half of the course should favor the specialists and bigger riders over the climbers.
When the Critérium du Dauphiné raced over this same course, the specialists crowded the top of the stage results. Tony Martin of HTC-Highroad won followed by Bradley Wiggins and Edvald Boasson Hagen. Cadel Evans, currently sitting third in the general classification at this Tour de France, finished 1:20 behind Martin.
The road to this final time trial has taken any number of surprising turns. Who imagined a French rider would win on the Alpe d'Huez? Rolland is the first Frenchmen since 1986, when Bernard Hinault crossed the line just ahead of Greg LeMond. And indeed, this Tour with its reverses and long attacks has resembled the Tours of the 1980's more than any of the grand tours since then.
In the normal way of things, Cadel Evans rides better against the watch than both Andy Schleck and Fränk Schleck who sit ahead of him in the general classification. Evans needs to take back nearly a minute on Andy Schleck to win the Tour de France. That's no easy task in 42.5 kilometers, and Evans will need a good ride to do it.
If Andy Schleck successfully defends his race lead, his long breakaway to the summit of the col du Galibier will have won him the bike race in dramatic fashion. If Evans succeeds in winning this Tour, it will be on the strength of his refusal to yield even one centimeter of road. They've done it the hard way, this Tour, in a hand-to-hand grapple through the mountains.
After three weeks of racing like this Tour de France, the Yellow Jersey race is too close to call. Any one of the top three riders could still win the overall. It comes down to who has the legs on the day. Who can recover best from the desperate battle through the mountains? Who can keep his head together when the tension ratches up and the countdown timer ticks down? Certainly, whoever finishes the day in Yellow on Saturday will have earned this Tour victory.
Here is the current general classification. Start your calculators!