Galibier-pass could decide TDF
Pinerolo - Former two-time runner-up Andy Schleck of Leopard-Trek believes the Tour de France could be decided by the end of Thursday's 18th stage to the Galibier.
A century after Emile Georget became the first rider in Tour history to crest the Galibier on his way to victory in stage five of the 1911 race, the legendary climb will be honoured twice by the peloton this week.
It will host the highest ever finish on the race during Thursday's 18th stage when the peloton climb to 2645 metres altitude and will be race in the reverse direction on Friday during the stage to Alpe d'Huez.
After a hectic downhill finish to Wednesday's 17th stage in which he took 27sec from Thomas Voeckler, Schleck remains fourth overall but is now 2min 36sec behind the race leader.
On Thursday, Schleck believes everything could change.
"Tomorrow's stage will be decisive. I hope it's not going to be a case of everyone watching each other until we get to the final climb (Galibier)," said the Luxemburger.
"It's 210 kilometres long and we go up over 2500 metres twice. It's going to be the stage of the Tour."
Featuring three gruelling 'hors categorie' (unclassified) climbs, stage 18 begins in Pinerolo and rolls south out of the Italian alpine town before heading east towards France.
The peloton will first tackle the 23.7km climb to the summit of the Col d'Agnel, whose summit sits on the Italian-French border.
Next up is the 14.1 km climb to the Col d'Izoard, which will be followed by the relatively easier, but much longer 22.8km climb to the oxygen-defying summit of the Galibier.
Given his comparative lack of climbing skills, Voeckler is not considered a real candidate for overall victory. It means Australian Cadel Evans, like Schleck a former two-time runner-up, is the man to beat.
The BMC leader sits just 1:18 behind Voeckler and holds leads of 4sec on Frank Schleck, 1:18 on Andy Schleck, 1:41 on Spaniard Samuel Sanchez and 1:57 on three-time and defending champion Alberto Contador.
Despite Contador being well off the pace, Andy Schleck refuses to rule out the Spaniard, who took 1:18 off him on a rain-hit descent on Tuesday.
"I think that Cadel is very strong and Alberto was really strong yesterday, although that was in rainy and cold conditions," said Schleck when asked to name his principal rivals.
"(Samuel) Sanchez, Alberto et Cadel."
While younger brother Andy has been Contador's biggest rival on the race the past two years, older brother Frank has come through this campaign strongest so far.
Only four seconds behind Evans, it seems likely that Leopard-Trek will do everything to destabilise the Australian. However, Frank is not expecting a pleasant day in the saddle.
"I'm expecting the worst!" he laughed when asked about his predictions for Friday.
"It's going to be a very hard stage, but very exciting for cycling and the Tour de France. We're in the last days, and everything is still wide open."