ANNECY, France — Unlike in many recent years when the final individual time trial either determined the Tour de France winner or solidified the pending winner's position, stage 18 this year doesn't carry the same significance.
And with Alberto Contador (Astana) of Spain increasing his lead to 2 minutes and 26 seconds in stage 17, the 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) route around Lake Annecy will likely have even less status than anticipated.
The route is shorter than the final time trial in most years, and it's flat and technical. There's one climb, a category 3 effort to Col de Bluffy, which peaks at 17.7 miles.
Annecy will host a Tour de France stage for only the third time, but it will be the first time in 50 years. The city is known as the “Venice of the Alps” and although not a regular Tour de France stop, it's part of the Criterium du Dauphine Libere, the annual Tour de France preamble.
Levi Leipheimer (Astana) of Santa Rosa, Ca., would have been a favorite, but the third-place finisher in the 2007 Tour de France withdrew after fracturing his right wrist in a late-stage crash in stage 12.Contador is now within four stages his fourth consecutive Grand Tour win, with only the time trial and the stage 20 mountaintop finish to Mont Ventoux left as significant stages for overall contenders.
Nonetheless, strange things happen in the Tour de France and there's still 341 miles of racing left before the final finish line in Paris.
Fabian Cancellara (Saxo-Bank) of Switzerland, a former world time trial champion, won stage 1 in Monaco on July 4 and held the race lead throughout nearly the first week. Cancellara is in 82nd place now, but he's a prime candidate for his second stage victory as the event's 96th edition begins to wind down.Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain (4:53) and Christian Vande Velde (8:08) of Lemont, Ill., are sixth and eighth in the general classification as Garmin-Slipstream teammates. Both are strong time trialists and will seek to improve their overall placings.
James Raia is reporting live from the Tour de France for everymantri.com. James, a journalist since 1976, is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. He owns several websites, contributes to many print and online publications. A long-distance runner for nearly 30 years, Raia also rides his bike -- to nearby coffeehouses.
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