Schlecks, Evans in showdown
Grenoble - With the finish looming Sunday, it's now crunch time at the Tour de France as Cadel Evans of Australia takes on the Schleck brothers.
The three-week cycling extravaganza reaches its culmination Saturday with a final time-trial that has lived up to its early billing to decide who takes home the yellow jersey a day later at the finish on Paris' Champs-Elysees.
On Friday, the punishing last leg in the Alps, Stage 19, winnowed down the last contenders: Andy Schleck of Luxembourg took the yellow jersey, with both his brother Frank and Evans trailing by less than a minute.
Alberto Contador made a last-ditch push, but came up short as his bid for a third straight title all but ended.
The final result remains a toss-up going into the 42.5-kilometer (26.4-mile) race against the clock. Time-trials have traditionally been a specialty of Evans, but the younger Schleck believes he's got the margin he needs to win.
Armchair observer - and seven-time winner - Lance Armstrong perhaps handicapped it best.
"Basically three guys racing for the overall. On paper Cadel should be able to do it," Armstrong tweeted, noting that Andy Schleck had a good time trial in 2010, "AND he's in yellow tomorrow - worth more than a few seconds."
In Tour reckoning, one of them will win unless they all fall into serious trouble, or a rider not much farther back in the overall standings mounts a miraculous finish; always possible, but very unlikely.
Past performance could be a guide: Evans is considered a strong time-trialer, while the Schlecks are known more for their mountain-climbing skills.
In the time-trial of the Criterium du Dauphine stage race last month -the exact same one as Saturday's - Evans finished sixth against some of the world's best and was 1:20 behind winner Tony Martin. Schleck wasn't there.
In the final 52-kilometer time trial at last year's Tour, Schleck placed 44th - 6:14 behind winner Fabian Cancellara - but was only 31 seconds slower than Contador, one of the world's top time trialers. Evans was more than 4-1/2 minutes slower, but was out of race contention by then.
In the 2008 Tour, Evans was nearly 2 minutes faster than Andy in a time trial that was about 10 kilometers longer. But that was his first Tour, he was only 23, and has worked to improve his time-trial skills since then.
This time, because riders set off in reverse order of the standings, Schleck will also enjoy the advantage of going last down the starter's ramp - so he'll be able to see how others fare.
"Everybody tells me it's a time trial that suits me good, so I believe everybody and hope to show a good performance tomorrow," Andy said of the rolling course.
And then, there's the added pep and inspiration of being in yellow.
"Fifty-seven seconds, that's a minute: it's a lot, even if he is a specialist," Andy Schleck said. "I'm not a specialist. But the yellow jersey on your shoulders, it gives you wings."
Other factors could also play a role. Nerves, fatigue after three hard weeks of racing, and the weather; the forecast is for periodic gusts of wind, but sunny skies.
"After 20 days of racing, it's a different ball game than a time trial in the first week," Schleck said. "Cadel's tired too, everybody's legs are hurting ... If I lose the jersey, I lose it."
France's Thomas Voeckler, whose 10-day run in the yellow jersey was ended by Andy Schleck on Friday, trails in fourth, 2 minutes, 10 seconds back. Italy's Damiano Cunego is fifth, 3:31 back, and Contador is sixth, 3:55 behind.
The parallels between Andy and Evans are considerable. They're both two-time runners up. They've both been second to Contador - Evans once and Schleck twice - and each know what it's like to just narrowly miss out on victory. Evans was second to Contador by 23 seconds in 2007; Schleck was 39 seconds behind the Spaniard last year - two of the closest finishes in the 108-year history of the race.
Evans, of the American team BMC, would be the first Australian winner. Schleck - whichever one - would be the first Luxembourg rider since Charly Gaul became the only winner from that tiny country in 1958.
Andy Schleck says it has been a childhood dream to be on the podium with his older brother: "First and second a day before Paris: what more could anyone want? ... We're here. But we know it's not finished. We're both motivated."
No brothers have ever shared a Tour de France podium.
Voeckler lost the yellow jersey after cracking on the day's first climb - and couldn't catch up on the famed Alpe d'Huez finish in Stage 19, won by his Europcar teammate Pierre Rolland.
Andy Schleck rode in 57 seconds behind Rolland in a group of six riders that included his brother and Evans. Voeckler rode in 3:21 behind his teammate.
"My motivation is super, my legs are good, my condition is there, so I'm confident I can keep this till Paris," Andy Schleck said of the leader's jersey.
Evans' formula for capturing it?
"Start as fast as possible. Finish as fast as possible. Hope you're fast enough."