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Schleck (left) and Contador.

tour de france

Final Weekend of Tour de France Could Be Incredibly Thrilling (or Kind of Anticlimactic)

Sports Section bicycling correspondent Jada Yuan grew up watching four-hour silent Japanese feeds of the Tour de France because her dad needed more than ABC's meager coverage. She will be covering the Tour (or TDF) until it ends and then she will be very sad it is all over. Today's installment: The stage before the stage we actually want to watch.

The stage after the end of the mountains in the Tour de France is always something of a letdown. These guys just spent four of the toughest days ever in the Pyrenees (the routes were designed to be particularly difficult in honor of the 100th anniversary of TDF going through that particular mountain range). Flat land, even 123 miles of it, just seems so easy.

And boring. So boring that you almost felt bad for Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, riding along in VIP cars, having just come from yesterday's London premiere of Knight and Day. What bozo schedules a European film premiere on the day the TDF climbs the Tourmalet? They posed for a photo op with Alberto Contador during the yellow-jersey ceremony, but good luck, you two, tricking the French public into thinking you actually care about bicycle racing. You missed all the epic battle yesterday, and the sheep, and the dude in the crowd wearing a Borat thong.

Anyway ... The day started with only 171 riders of an initial 198 left in the Tour. The mountains really do separate the all-around riders from the specialists; the guy in last place, German time-trial ace Bert Grabsch, is four hours and 27 minutes behind Alberto Contador. In racing terms, that's a full day! The trip to today's Stage 18 finish, Bordeaux, was relatively uneventful. Announcers Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett bantered about energy-saving lightbulbs and vineyards. Four guys broke off from the peloton early on and got caught 3km in. Too bad for them. Mark Cavendish won his fourth stage of this Tour, increasing the record he already holds for the most wins in sprinters' stages by any rider in TDF history. He's also a favorite to win the sprint on the Champs-Élysées for the Tour finish on Sunday, yet he's in 154th place, three hours and 49 minutes behind Contador. Just goes to show you don't have to be good at everything.

Tomorrow's 52km (32mi) time trial (watch it on Versus) should be very interesting. Just eight seconds separate Schleck from Contador's yellow jersey, which is the same number of seconds by which Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989, still the smallest margin of victory of any Tour. LeMond started out that stage 50 seconds down and gained all that back and a little more thanks to then-revolutionary Aero handlebars and an aerodynamic helmet, as well as that indefinable burst of human will that makes people capable of riding bikes really, really fast. (See the amazing footage, complete with ominous orchestral music, here.) Conventional wisdom is that Schleck will lose a lot of time to Contador tomorrow. Contador is itching for a stage win so he won't be the eighth rider in TDF history to win the Tour but not win a stage, and in last year's time trial, he beat Schleck by 1:42. But this year, Schleck has been a much-improved rider. He and Contador proved exactly even in the mountains (imagine the damage Schleck could have done if his brother Frank were there to help), and he, too, will be highly motivated — to get a chance to win, of course, but also to prove that he's capable of doing well in time trials and could someday be something other than second best. Contador is not counting him out. "Andy is very strong. We can expect him to be really good in the time trial," he said, and deflected a reporter's question on whether he thought he could match the five TDF wins of Miguel Indurain, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, and Bernard Hinault. "I haven't even won my third Tour yet," he said. "I will try to win that one first." Schleck agreed. "Before this Tour, people said that the best climber in the world is Alberto, but I think I showed them that I'm with him. Maybe that's the case in the time trial. I can see the yellow jersey in front of me, and I really want it. I'm not going to give up until Paris."

Below, clips of yesterday's dramatic stage finish atop the Tourmalet (check out those crowds!) and a wrap-up of yesterday's stage including our favorite part, when Contador pats Schleck's face and winks at him, and stops just short of a butt-slap.

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Photo: Bas Czerwinski/AP