SAINT-JEAN-DE-MAURIENNE, France (AP) — Not yet half way through, and the Tour de France is already looking like a two-man contest.
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg vs. Alberto Contador of Spain.
Schleck took the yellow jersey from a banged-up and bawling Cadel Evans in Tuesday’s last ride on the high Alps in Stage 9, finishing 2 seconds behind French winner Sandy Casar and astride defending champion Contador.
The race has another 11 stages to go, and it’s possible that one of several pre-race title hopefuls could rebound. But it’d take guts, savvy and skill in the face of the mountain prowess of Schleck and Contador.
Seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong says he’s out of contention.
This Tour favors strong climbers, with four punishing stages in the Pyrenees ahead in Week Three. A final time trial on the eve of the July 25 finish in Paris could play a role.
Schleck, the 25-year-old Saxo Bank team leader, has shown he’s the unquestioned mountain master so far. He won Sunday’s entree into the Alps in Stage 8, and lost only 2 seconds to the winner Tuesday.
Only Contador has shown any sign of being able to keep up.
“I think he and I are a little above the others,” Schleck said of their duel Tuesday when he repeatedly tried to shake the Spaniard to no avail. “I didn’t put time on Contador, but he couldn’t drop me either.”
Casar led a sprint among seven breakaway riders — including Contador and Schleck — at the end of the 204.5-kilometer (127-mile) Alpine ride from Morzine to Saint-Jean-La-Maurienne, containing three tough climbs.
Evans, the world champion and a two-time Tour runner-up, was dropped on the fabled Madeleine pass — the day’s last big climb — and lost more than 8 minutes on Schleck and Contador.
Overall, Schleck leads his Spanish rival by 41 seconds, while Spain’s Samuel Sanchez — who finished eighth, 52 seconds back — jumped to third and trails the leader by 2:45.
The shakeout is clear. A year ago, when the pack had gotten over the first high mountains, 14 riders were within 2:45 of leader Rinaldo Nocentini. At the same point in 2008, nine were within 2:32 of the leader: Evans.
Many pre-race prognosticators expected Contador and Schleck to duke it out in the mountains. The Spaniard is better in the time trials, and Schleck wants as big a lead possible going into the July 24 race against the clock.
Other contenders will be looking to pounce at any sign of frailty from them: Russia’s Denis Menchov is fourth — 2:58 back. RadioShack rider Levi Leipheimer of the United States trails Schleck by 3:59, in sixth. Menchov’s Rabobank teammate Robert Gesink of the Netherlands is seventh, 4:22 off the leader’s pace. Luis Leon Sanchez is 4:41 back, in eighth.
Schleck all but challenged those behind him to give it their best shot in Wednesday’s 10th stage, a 179-kilometer ride from Chambery to Gap which has three medium- to high-level ascents.
“The others also can attack too, but they don’t, so…” he said. “If I were in a position, 5, 6, 8, 9 minutes (back), I would tomorrow go all in and somehow try to turn this game around.”
“Everybody’s free to try that, but right now, it looks like, yeah, it’s Alberto vs. me,” he added.
Contador insisted it’s not a two-man race. But he’s watching Schleck most of all.
“There are still a lot of riders who can get away in breakaways, and there are still a lot of stages where they can attack from far out,” Contador said, while acknowledging: “The gaps are bigger than expected.”
For a while, it looked like Luis Leon Sanchez, who began the day 5:03 back of Evans, might take the yellow jersey. The Caisse d’Epargne leader was among 12 cyclists who broke away and had a lead of about 6-½ minutes on the pack about two-thirds of the way through the stage.
That was before the Madeleine.
Midway up the climb, one of the toughest in cycling, Evans was dumped. His pedal rhythm was slow-motion compared to that of Astana teammates of Contador, who were pressing the pack’s pace, and Schleck.
That was when Schleck and Contador engaged in a dramatic duel about midway through the punishing climb, with the Luxembourg rider attacking on several occasions — but unable to shake the Spaniard.
At the top of the Madeleine, with a long descent ahead, Contador, Schleck and Samuel Sanchez trailed about 2:10 back of a small group of breakaway riders. By the foot, they trailed by about 1:40, and continued to gain on the escapees in the 13-kilometer flat to the finish. They caught them within the last 600 meters.
It was a dazzling display of acceleration.
Evans finished 8:09 back from Casar, in 42nd place. He broke down after the finish, burying his head in the hug of a BMC Racing teammate and sobbing.
Evans said he felt bad for his teammates and staffers: “Everyone who believed in me in this whole project — you know, everything was going so good — I’m just so sorry to let them all down,” he said.
After the stage, team doctor Max Testa said Evans was riding with a “small but very painful” fracture on his left elbow after crashing early in the eighth stage on Sunday — when he captured the coveted yellow shirt. He said Evans’ teammates didn’t know about his fracture on Monday and BMC staff didn’t tell them so as not to disrupt “the morale of the team.”
Armstrong finished 18th, 2:50 behind Casar. The Texan rose in the standings to 31st, from 39th, but lost time in the title chase. He’s now 15:54 behind Schleck, after starting the day 13:26 back of Evans.
Armstrong spent his day pondering the law of averages and still thinking about a mind-boggling string of three crashes on Sunday that sent his hopes of an eighth Tour victory vanishing into the ether.
“Two decades of my career, and the years I won seven in a row, I had no bad luck,” he said, “Seven years with hardly a flat, hardly a crash. That’s almost unheard of.”
“It’s logical that luck catches up with you. I can’t change it,” added 38-year-old Armstrong, who says this is his last Tour.
“The most important thing is that I leave with a good attitude.”
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.