Until yesterday, the 2011 Tour de France had been a bit of a drowsy bore (even Lance Armstrong had admitted as much). Then came yesterday's 18th stage when, like a stag party on Day 3 of a Champagne bender, things lurched inexplicably alive. There was a punishing "stuff of legends" solo attack by gangly Luxembourger Andy Schleck, who may or may not talk to unicorns. There was the full-on disintegration of last year's winner, Alberto Contador. There was the tenacious ride by the uniformly discounted French underdog Tommy Voeckler. The hysteria over today's 19th stage was difficult to suppress: the final mountain stage, featuring the fabled 21 bends of the Alpe d'Huez — the 21 stairs to heaven, as they call it on TV. People in yellow bracelets were calling in late to work.
With Contador and Voeckler cooked, and the sprint specialists struggling to even finish, the main event was supposed to be the Brothers Schleck vs. Cadel Evans, an Aussie who has yet to win a tour. If Andy and Frank Schleck, solid climbers and calculating lads to boot, could work Evans over in the mountains, the Tour might be over. If Evans could hang in there against Fandy Schleck (thanks, Twitter), the race would be decided in an individual solo time trial, one of his strengths. So what happened? Shit got ugly. Not in the way that the rest of this year has been — with crash after bloody crash — but in a desperate, this-is-how-we-go-off-on-a-teeth-gnashing-HGH-rage kind of way.
First, there was Contador, all but counted out. Dude attacks 92 kilometers from the finish. That's a nauseatingly uphill ride. The last 200 meters lie at a 12 percent grade — the vertical change is roughly equivalent to an eight story building — and some turns are at 14 percent. This wasn't ballsy; it was psychotic, the attack of a man with few options. Paul Sherwin, Versus sideman, likened it to "the tactics of the 1960s and 1970s, when people were not afraid." His partner, the beloved Phil Liggett, concurred that the ride reminded him of "when men were men and there were no race radios." Contador got caught, but not after mounting another ballsy, doomed attack and punching an obnoxious fan.
Then there was predictable fall of Voeckler, who was looking good for a while but had a tantrum after getting dropped 60 kilometers from the finish. He threw his water bottle around. He swayed like a sailor on the last night of shore leave. Every time the camera found him, he wore the theatrically pained look of a bad actor getting plugged in a bad Western. You could imagine him watching the footage later in slow motion while listening to the Fauré Requiem. When the cameras cut back to him some 55 kilometers later, he was yelling at himself. Voeckler had a surprisingly long run in yellow — long enough that it kindled a weird national narrative that rendered him a sort of French Jesus of cycling, heralding the end of doping — but by the end of his ride Friday, he looked like nothing so much as a child in need of a timeout.
Amid all the theatrics, Evans and Frandy rode the same kind of neither-here-nor-there races that, next to Contador's batshit 1970s throwback, felt so drearily '00s. Too strategic, too calculated, too much decided by people in the team cars looking at their watches, watching a video feed and radioing to their riders. Evans did inch himself into a slightly better position going into tomorrow's race, but without the spark, he remains a dull foil to the Schlecks,
So here's what to watch for tomorrow:
It's an individual time trial — the part of the race where it's just solo riders against the clock, wearing those helmets that remind you a little of Spaceballs. As of today, Andy Schleck leads the race, 53 seconds ahead of brother Frank and 57 seconds ahead of Evans, who probably looks at the Schlecks now and sees four or five years of chasing their back wheels. For the pure art of the time trial, watch Fabian Cancellara, one of the world's finest time trialists. Cancellara is so fast that people accuse him of having a motor on his bike. Really. Look for him to win the stage, and look for Contador to continue being a volatile little menace, riding for nothing but the soul of his sport.
Nate Cavalieri will write about the last few stages of the Tour de France for us. He's written for Lonely Planet and Spin and cycled across Zambia as a part of the Tour d'Afrique. Follow him on Twitter, @natecavalieri.