Riders are setting out one by one for the suspenseful final time trial of the Tour de France, with Cadel Evans or one of the Schleck brothers most likely to take home the yellow jersey.
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg holds a 53-second lead over older brother Frank and a 57-second gap on Australia's Evans, who is considered the best time trial rider among the three.
The riders compete in reverse order of the standings, so the contenders will only take to the course in the late afternoon Saturday. Andy Schleck will have the benefit of riding last — and the added inspiration of wearing yellow.
Although there is one more stage, the leader after the time trial is certain to be the overall victor: Sunday's finale on the Champs-Elysees in Paris tends to be a ceremonial ride because launching a successful attack on that flat last stage is virtually impossible.
Alberto Contador of Spain, the defending champion, made a last-ditch push in Friday's final ride in the Alps, but came up short: his bid for a fourth Tour title is all but over.
The final result after the 42.5-kilometer (26.4-mile) race against the clock in Grenoble remains a toss-up: Time trials have often been Evans' specialty, but Andy Schleck believes he's got the margin he needs to win.
One of them will win unless they all befall serious trouble, or a rider not much farther back in the overall standings mounts a miraculous finish. Always possible. But those prospects are very unlikely.
In the time trial of the Criterium du Dauphine stage race last month — the exact same one as Saturday's — Evans placed sixth against some of the world's best time-trialers, and was 1:20 behind winner Tony Martin.
Schleck wasn't there. In the final 52-kilometer time trial at last year's Tour, he placed 44th — 6:14 behind winner Fabian Cancellara — but was only 31 seconds slower than Contador, one of the world's top time-trialers. Evans was more than 4½ minutes slower, but was out of race contention by then.
In the 2008 Tour, Evans was nearly 2 minutes faster than Andy in a time trial that was about 10 kilometers longer. But that was his first Tour, he was only 23, and has worked to improve his time trial skills since then.
"Fifty-seven seconds. Well, that's a minute — it's a lot, even if he is a specialist," Andy said Friday. "I'm not a specialist. But the yellow jersey on your shoulders, it gives you wings."
Other factors could also play a role: nerves, fatigue after three hard, tense weeks of racing, and the weather. The forecast is for periodic gusts of wind but sunny skies.
France's Thomas Voeckler, whose 10-day run in yellow was snapped by Andy on Friday, trails in fourth, 2 minutes, 10 seconds back. Italy's Damiano Cunego is fifth, 3:31 back, and Contador is sixth, 3:55 behind.
The parallels between Andy and Evans are considerable. They're both two-time runners-up. They've both been second to Contador — Evans once and Schleck twice — and each know what it's like to just barely miss out on victory. Evans was second to Contador by 23 seconds in 2007; Schleck was 39 seconds behind the Spaniard last year — two of the closest finishes in the 108-year history of the race.
Evans, of the U.S. team BMC, would be the first Australian winner. Schleck — whichever one — would be the first Luxembourg rider since Charly Gaul was the first and only from winner from that country to win, in 1958.
Andy says it has been a childhood dream to be on the podium with his older brother: "First and second a day before Paris: what more could anyone want? ... We're here. But we know it's not finished. We're both motivated."
No brothers have ever shared a Tour de France podium.
Voeckler lost the coveted yellow shirt to Andy Schleck on Friday after cracking on the day's first climb — and couldn't catch up on the famed Alpe d'Huez finish in Stage 19, won by his Europcar teammate Pierre Rolland.
"My motivation is super, my legs are good, my condition is there, so I'm confident I can keep this till Paris," Andy said of the leader's tunic.
Evans' formula for capturing it?
"Start as fast as possible. Finish as fast as possible. Hope you're fast enough," he said.
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