SAINT-JEAN-DE-MAURIENNE, France – Not yet halfway 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 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.