Andy Schleck of the Leopard-Trek team has the overall lead entering Saturday's time trial at the Tour de France.
ALPE d’HUEZ, France — After 2,105 miles and nearly three weeks of racing, through three perilously steep climbs into the Alps, the Tour de France likely will be decided Saturday in a 26-mile sprint through Grenoble. This is a bit like deciding a marathon with a 100-meter dash.
The potentially dramatic situation emerged Friday when, in the final mountain stage of this year’s Tour, Andy Schleck of the Leopard-Trek team secured the overall leader’s yellow jersey, which has long eluded him this late into the competition.
Unlike in the previous two Tours, he will not enter the penultimate and decisive stage behind Alberto Contador, who is riding for the Saxo Bank Sungard team. But Australian Cadel Evans of the BMC team lurks close behind, 57 seconds out, and he is considered a superior time trialist.
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Frank Schleck, Andy’s brother and teammate, is in second place, 53 seconds behind.
One by one, in reverse order of the standings, riders will set out Saturday in an individual time trial, a race against the clock. Teammates will not be around to pull them along, as they dutifully did through ascents in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
Whoever stands on top after Saturday is expected to be sipping champagne Sunday during the final stage, a ceremonial ride into Paris.
“I couldn’t have told a writer to create a better Tour de France,” Andy Schleck said. “It’s all there — the suspense is perfect.”
Much of the suspense lies in the Schleck-Evans showdown. Can Schleck, who is not a strong time trialist, make his lead stand up?
“Many riders say that the yellow jersey gives you wings,” Schleck said. “I hope that will be the case tomorrow.”
If Schleck felt he failed to properly widen his gap over Evans, he did not show it after Stage 19. As he pulled on the yellow jersey at the podium, he kissed a stuffed animal. Then he told reporters: “My motivation is super. My legs are good. The condition is there. So I’m confident I can keep this into Paris.”
He had powered into contention Thursday, with a bold attack on the second of three major climbs, a gutsy move that recalled past champions, as if borrowed from the cycling legend Eddy Merckx. Naturally, such audacity called into question how much energy Schleck would retain for another trip into the mountains, a shorter one (68 miles), which plays against his strengths, at that.
Late Thursday, Contador praised Schleck’s strategy and declared his own chances of winning this Tour de France over. Schleck, though, refused to dismiss Contador as a threat.
Still, Contador announced his presence, pushing the pace early, sprinting from the peloton well before the riders climbed Col du Galibier again, from the opposite side they ascended Thursday. Schleck followed.
In doing so, Contador changed the complexion of this stage, forcing the favorites — including Evans and the Schlecks — to keep pace. The stage winner was Frenchman Pierre Rolland of the Europcar team.
Contador will remember this Tour with disappointment, for the bad luck and the series of crashes and the sore right knee — and for Thursday, too, when Andy Schleck left him behind in the mountains. Yet despite their rivalry and any bad blood lingering from last year’s Tour, which Contador won, the two worked together through Galibier. Contador finished Friday’s stage in third place, but remained nearly four minutes behind in the overall standings.
“I may not get the win,” Contador said. “But I am happy with the stage.”
As Contador and Schleck sped, Evans slowed, albeit briefly, because of a mechanical issue with his bike.
Europcar rider Thomas Voeckler, a Frenchman who had improbably defended the yellow jersey from the ninth stage until Friday, dropped in the standings, into fourth place.
As retired Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner from Texas, noted on his Twitter page, “If you thought the Pyrenees were boring (I admit, so did I), then the boys are making up for it yesterday and today!”