Alberto Contador showed in the Alps that he is the best climber in the Tour (regardless of what the polka dot jersey says), and today, he underlined his status as the number 1 rider in the 2009 Tour by winning the 40.5km individual time-trial in Annecy.
For the Tour’s best climber to do so well in a time-trial on what was largely a flat course means that Contador’s rise to world’s best stage racer has now been punctuated by a great ability against the clock, when he used to be a rider who gained time in the mountains and then minimized his losses in the time-trials.
Today, he was fastest from the start, and while Fabian Cancellara did a storming ride in the final 12km, it was not enough to overhaul the time that had been lost in the first part of the course.
Contador took the stage in 48:30, narrowly beating Cancellara (3 seconds), with the GC contenders stacked in amongst time-trial specialists further down. Brad Wiggins was the best of them in sixth, Andreas Kloden was 9th, Lance Armstrong 16th, and Andy Schleck 21st. Frank Schleck had probably the worst day of the big favourites, losing his podium place and leaving himself with a great deal of work if he is to reclaim it by Sunday’s finish.
Implications for the GC
In terms of the GC, the big movers of the day were Armstrong, who climbed to 3rd, displacing Frank Schleck, who finished the day 1:04 behind him. Andy Schleck will also be pleased with his performance, because he limited his losses to Kloden and Armstrong to only 47 seconds and 15 seconds respectively.
It means that Andy’s second overall is protected by 1:14 over Lance Armstrong. It seems a difficult ask for Armstrong to overhaul that deficit with only the climb of Mont Ventoux to come. though it could happen – a bad day or a good day either way and minutes can be lost. More interesting for Saturday’s big stage will be the battle for third on the podium, since Armstrong is separated by only 11 seconds from Wiggins, with Kloden and Frank Schleck also within striking distance of a spot on the podium. The race for yellow may have been sewn up, but Saturday on Mont Ventoux should produce some fireworks for the remaining podium places.
Pacing analysis – contest by contest
I thought an interesting approach to the time trial would be to examine the pacing strategies employed by the GC contenders, and Fabian Cancellara, specifically to see who had the strength over the latter part of the race.
I’ve tabled the times for each of five segments of the 6 GC contenders and Cancellara, and shown where each was ranked for that particular segment. So below are two images, the first showing the rankings and times for the first three segments, the second showing the last two and the overall time. Briefly, the segments were: 0 to 18km (18km); 18km to 25km (7km); 25 to 28.5km (3.5km, including the day’s short climb); 28.5 to 37km (8.5km) and 37 to 40.5km (3.5km).
Given that this time-trial was all about clawing back time, gaining time, and restricting time losses, it’s interesting to compare riders in those mini-battles – Armstrong vs Andy and Frank Schleck, Wiggings vs Armstrong and Contador vs Cancellara (for the stage, rather than the GC!) – and see where they made up time and lost it. Bear in mind that when you look at these times, you’re seeing effects of rider fatigue (when they slow down), but also of conscious decisions.
Contador vs Cancellara – tale of two halves
Contador made an incredibly fast start – he was 18 seconds up on Wiggins, and a full 37 seconds ahead of Cancellara, who had begun far more conservatively. That was switched around for segment 2, where it was Cancellara who was fastest, and Contador, perhaps by then a bit more settled, slow down somewhat, posting only the 5th best time of our seven riders. The trend for Frank Schleck was set from the outset, and he would go on to post the slowest time of our seven riders at all the time checks with the exception of the short climb, which is where the data is perhaps most interesting.
It was on this climb (segment 3) that Contador really won the day. His time here, over just 3.5km, was 18 seconds faster than the next best rider, and a full 31 seconds faster than Cancellara. It meant that Contador was now 46 seconds ahead of Cancellara, with the long gradual descent to come. Despite Cancellara’s very fast finish (shown below), Contador held on for the win. In fact, having reached the high point of the course 46 seconds down, Cancellara managed to finish 43 seconds faster than Contador over the final 12.5 km, and eventually “ran out of road” to win his second Tour stage.
Armstrong vs Andy Schleck – the impact of the hill
Of interest on this climb is that the slowest time of all the riders was that of Armstrong, in 9:11. That is a full 46 seconds slower than Contador, and is where Armstrong really began to battle in his efforts to claw back Andy Schleck. Coming into the stage, Armstrong was looking for 1:29 to catch Andy.
Up to the bottom of the climb (25km) it was going well. In fact, before the climb (at the 25km mark), he was 33 seconds ahead of Andy Schleck on the stage. By the finish of the stage, that lead had been cut to 15 seconds, thanks largely to the 28 seconds Schleck was able to claw back on the short climb. Shleck ended up 1:14 ahead of Armstrong for second place overall, but it was looking much more tenuous until the climb gave the younger Shleck some time back.
Looking at the second group of segments, the profile is overall downhill, and so not surprisingly, the speeds are much higher, and Cancellara dominated in these two segments.
Brad Wiggins – a fast start that failed to continue
Brad Wiggins posted consistent times in terms of the rankings, but in terms of times, he faltered a little after the summit of the climb . His podium aspirations required that he make up a deficit of 58 seconds on Lance Armstrong. By the time they reached the summit at checkpoint 3, he’d recovered 42 of those seconds. However, over the final 12.5km downhill section, he was able to extend this by only 5 more seconds, to make up 47 seconds. That leaves him with 11 seconds for the Mont Ventoux, as explained above, and that may just prove too difficult an ask given the last two days in the Alps, where Armstrong looked to have his measure.
Frank Schleck – consistent time losses
Starting the day in third, it was always going to be tough for Frank Schleck to keep Armstrong at bay. He had a 30 second advantage, and it was gone by the first time check at 18km, where he was already 35 seconds down. From that point onwards, he “only” lost another 30 seconds, thanks in part to the climb, where he recovered 19 seconds on Armstrong, who did that climb slowest of all, as mentioned. That means he goes into the Mont Ventoux stage with 34 seconds to make up to catch Armstrong. That may just prove a bridge too far, unless he has an incredible day and is able to use the steep part of the climb and perhaps his brother’s support to attack. He does of course also have to worry about Kloden and Wiggins and make sure he beats them by almost the same margin, so the chances of a podium finish seem slim.
An early predication for the podium then says that Andy Schleck will hold on, and that Lance Armstrong should have enough to hold off Wiggins and Frank Schleck for the third spot.
Tomorrow is likely to be a day for the break. One more big battle awaits, and having come through 4 big days, the big teams are likely to look at rest and conserve energy for the Mont Ventoux ‘showdown’. So don’t expect too many fireworks, other than those provided by riders who will see tomorrow as their last shot at a stage win.
Preview of Mont Ventoux to come, and then obviously the race report on Saturday
Join us then!