Le grand tour

Cadel Evans at the start of the first stage of...

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Last couple of nights I’ve been up till 2am watching the Tour de France. It’s been sensational. They have, literally, ridden over hill and down dale. Moving into the alpine stages the race gained a dimension absent from the flat. This was hard, grinding stuff, characterised this year by attacks and counter-attacks.This is really what it’s all about. The sprints to the finish might be exciting, but it is the human drama played out on the steep slopes of the Pyrenees and the Alps that really gets the blood pumping.

On Thursday night Andy Schleck attacked a long way out like hardly ever happens, and hung on to the end. His main rival, Cadel Evans, was in the pack trailing him. In those few hours the winning and losing of the Tour was right there. Had maintained his lead – at one stage over 4 minutes – then his lead might well have been unassailable. But, without any real support, Evans put his head down and ground his way up the mountain dragging the pack with him. It was an efort of immense will and mental toughness, and by the time he crossed the finish line they had reduced Schlecks lead to just over 2 minutes. The race was still in the balance.

Last night it was the three time champion Contador who attacked. Wary after the atttack previous he was joined by Andy Schleck, Evans, and the yellow jersey holder, Voeckler. Then for Evans tragedy struck. A mechanical issue saw him stopped by the side of the road calling for a new bike. By the time he was pedalling again the leaders had scooted far into the distance. Once more the Tour was there to be lost, with Schleck streaking ahead.

On this occasion Evans rejoined the peloton and fell over 2 minutes behind. Once more he ground his teeth and refused to submit. A long and sustained attack saw him lead and then break up the pack trailing him as he halved the lead, and then halved it again. With 20 kilometres to go he had joined Schleck and Contador, and once more the race was in the balance. Contador attacked and drew away, but out of contention Evans let him go and stuck tight to Andy Schleck’s rear wheel. And so we come to tonight’s critical stage.

Tonight is the time trial, the penultimate stage of the race. Tomorrow they ride into Paris, a formality as by tradition the yellow jersey wearer leads them in. Tonight is when it must be decided.

There are only three real contenders, the Schleck brothers and Evans. Evans trails Andy by 57 seconds, and Frank by just a few. Evans is the much superior time trial rider of the three. In normal circumstances you’d favour him to make up the deficit with something to spare, but this is the Tour de France, these are not normal circumstances.

Andy Schleck wears the yellow jersey and will ride off last. What powers will that famous top bestow him with? We’ve watched Voeckler fight tooth and nail to retain it over the last week, and watched as it extracted from him every reserve of strength and will. That’s what it does for you. Schleck will bleed first before letting Cadel Evans take it from him.

As an Aussie I’ll be barracking hard for Evans. I think he’s been the most impressive rider of the tour. Without the support of the other teams he has kept on coming. He is the one rider who has appeared consistently strong, good in the hills as well as on the flat. I have great admiration for the way he has performed here. There are few tougher sporting events in the world than the Tour de France, and it would be easy in those gruelling mountain stages and a long way behind to throw in the towel. He hasn’t. He has shown immense strength of mind and great heart. The Schleck brothers hoped to break him in combination, but failed. Tonight it is for him to make them pay.

Will it happen? One thing’s certain, I’ll be watching it. I can think about getting a normal night’s sleep again in a couple of days, until then I’m riding by his side, like so many other Aussie’s. I give him a bit better than a 50/50 chance. Whoever wins, it won’t be by a lot.

Regardless, this has been a great event. It’s hard to believe a bike race can be so compelling, but not a moment goes by when I’m not fixated on the action. Every second counts, every bump in the road, every curve has a story waiting to be told. My fascination is shared by thousands more here in z I know of, and of course millions around the world. I surprise myself by thinking I’d like to see it live one day: something I would never have contemplated 10 years ago.

So, tonight. Yours to win Cadel.

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