ALPE D’HUEZ, France – If Andy Schleck is to finally win the Tour de France, he’s going to have to overcome one final obstacle on his own.
The two-time Tour de France runner-up has acknowledged the advantage he gains from racing alongside his older brother Frank. But the younger Schleck won’t have that support in today’s crucial next-to-last stage, a time trial in which he’ll try to hold onto his lead over Cadel Evans.
The Australian, also a two-time runner-up in cycling’s premier race, is considered better at the solo race against the clock.
Andy Schleck captured the yellow jersey Friday on the famed Alpe d’Huez, setting up a riveting finish to the 2011 race with the time trial followed Sunday by the dash to the Champs Elysees in Paris. The final stage rarely affects the overall standings.
Frenchman Pierre Rolland won the 19th stage, battling up the mountain’s 21 brutally steep bends to finish 14 seconds ahead of Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez and 23 seconds clear of three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador.
Schleck, who lost the 2010 Tour by a mere 39 seconds to Contador, leads his brother Frank by 53 seconds, while Evans is third, 57 seconds behind.
Schleck knocked Contador out of the running in Thursday’s ascent of the Galibier pass, launching a daring solo attack from over 30 miles out that the Spaniard couldn’t match.
Schleck, considered one of cycling’s top climbers, protected his lead over Evans on the Alpe d’Huez, the last of a three-day stretch of epic mountain stages in the Alps and one of the most famous climbs in cycling.
Though Evans didn’t gain any time on the 26-year-old rider from Luxembourg, he still has a shot at beating both Schleck brothers in the 26.4-mile time trial around Grenoble.
Time trialing, the individual race against the clock dominated by specialists such as Swiss world champion Fabian Cancellara and U.S. rider David Zabriskie, has long been a weak point for Andy Schleck.
Evans is a strong time trialist, but it will take a superlative performance to make up his 57-second deficit and upset the Schlecks’ long-held dream of becoming the first brothers to finish together on the winner’s podium in the Tour’s 108-year history.
Andy Schleck said he has not checked out the route for today’s stage, but he dismissed concerns he won’t be able to hold off Evans.
“Everybody tells me it’s a time trial that suits me good, so I believe everybody and hope to show a good performance tomorrow,” Schleck said.
Evans beat Schleck by nearly 2 minutes in a 2008 Tour time trial that was about 6.2 miles longer. Schleck was only 23 and riding in his first Tour then, and since has worked on improving in the discipline.
Evans said he wished he was not so far behind Schleck going into today’s stage.
“Of course I’d like to take more time going into the time trial,” Evans said. “I’d much rather be in yellow, with five minutes going into the stage.”
Evans said he’d follow a simple strategy: “Start as fast as possible, finish as fast as possible, hope you’re fast enough.”
Schleck took the yellow jersey from Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who cracked on the day’s first climb and clawed his way back to the leaders before fading midway through a gritty struggle up the Alpe d’Huez.
Schleck made good on his promise Thursday to capture the jersey, after he missed taking the lead on top of the Galibier pass by only 15 seconds after launching a daring solo attack.
Now he has Sunday’s finish line firmly in his sights.
“My motivation is super, my legs are good, my condition is there, so I’m confident I can keep this till Paris,” Schleck said.