After all the controversy of the past few days, we saw what cycling -- and all sports -- is all about during Sunday's Stage 15: Athletes laying it on the line, putting all of their cards on the table and seeing what happened at the end.
And two brothers, Andy and Frank Schleck ("Uncle Frankie," as he's referred to by the Julich clan), were at the heart of the drama.
Sunday's 113.7-mile stage, which ended at the summit of Prato Nevoso, was like a heavyweight championship fight. While four riders made up a small breakaway pack for the bulk of the stage, the peloton didn't play catch-up. But once the peloton reached the base of the final climb, that's the drama unfolded. A small group of 10 riders, including all of the main overall contenders, did battle in one of the best stages I've seen. If you love bike racing, you loved Sunday.
Watching it as an athlete, it was amazing to see the success of the attacks and teamwork on display. Some casual fans may have watched the race and said the riders up the road in the breakaway group won the race. But the real victory, the real indicator of the next few days, was all going on in that group of 10 riders.
And leading the way was Team CSC-Saxo Bank and Andy Schleck. Now, some may say I am biased because CSC is my team; but I've watched the Schleck brothers evolve over the past four years. Andy's biggest hero is Frank, and Andy was fighting for his brother on that last climb. He had that look in his eyes. He kept coming back to the head of the small group to set the tempo. While some thought Andy may have been done after that first pull, he just came back again. And after Andy struggled up to Super-Besse during the first week of the Tour, I knew he would lay it on the line Sunday. I am sure there will be a time when Frank returns the favor.
CSC had all the bases covered and showed its strength during the stage. Heading into Sunday, Frank, who was one second behind Cadel Evans for the overall Tour lead, had to keep tabs on Evans, and Evans on Frank. While the group of 10 worked its way up, Carlos Sastre finally showed some form in the mountains and attacked, putting the ball back in Evans' court. Evans took the lead with about a kilometer to go, but then Sastre, Bernhard Kohl, Alejandro Valverde and Denis Menchov pulled away from the group. This is where Sastre showed a lot of class -- instead of outsprinting Kohl (and, in turn, potentially leading Kohl past Schleck for the overall lead), he rode the wheel and protected Schleck's lead.
Then, I started yelling at my television -- all Frank needed to do was drop Evans to gain the yellow jersey. And drop Evans he did. CSC controlled the stage as if it was already holding the yellow jersey. Now, they are, and there's no second-guessing from here on out. Now, it's up to Frank and Carlos to attack. They know seven or 49 seconds isn't going to be enough with Saturday's final time trial around the corner. You're going to see more aggression. But when you have teammates like Sastre and the Schlecks, you are totally comfortable in most situations.
Heading into the second rest day ...
Uncle Frankie has his work cut out for him. Knowing he has two tough stages in the Alps ahead, he has to be nervous. And if you're going into the mountains with such a slim lead, it's not going to be a rest day. While riders like Frank, who have won a stage or have worn yellow, may relax a little, they still need to keep their focus and keep themselves in check. Riders like American Christian Vande Velde or Kohl are are dangerous guys and champing at the bit.
Unlike the last rest day, you are going straight into the mountains, so there's no sleeping in. You have to do at least three hours and raise your heart rate to stay in the rhythm of the race. I don't know if people quite understand how important that is. Your body adapts to the pain and feeds on the stress and pressure you're putting on it. You've been riding at this pace for two weeks -- you have to keep the motor running and not take time off. Your diet stays the same, though. A rider may have been tempted to have ice cream or McDonald's on the first rest day, but this time it's all business. Plus, since riders see the light at the end of the tunnel, the sacrifices they can make to get through the last week are amazing. You're so close, you don't think about rest.
Here are some game plans for some of the overall contenders:
Schleck, Sastre and Team CSC-Saxo Bank: On Monday, everyone on Team CSC-Saxo Bank will be getting their second wind. When you take over the yellow jersey, you go up a notch mentally. Tuesday's Stage 16 is not a summit finish, so it will be controlled. Stage 17, the mother of Tour stages with the L'Alpe-d'Huez finish, is where Frank will lay down the lumber. He's already won there and the stage suits him. He has to take time out of Evans. Sastre, too. It's not over yet, but Sunday was a momentum changer for CSC.
Evans: Cadel is actually not in a bad situation. He lost only seven seconds and sits eight ticks back from Schleck. Plus, heading into the mountains without wearing yellow means there's less stress for him and his team. He has to stay with the pack in the mountains. On paper, Evans is better in time trials than Schleck.
Vande Velde: Right now, he's golden. Sitting in fifth overall, 39 seconds back of Schleck, all he needs to do is stay close. Because he is one of the strongest time trialists out there, he just needs to stay with the main leaders through the Alps and take time off the leaders in the time trial. After the first few days of the race, I thought Vande Velde was destined for a top 10 finish. As time went on, I thought top 5 for sure. Now, with where he's positioned, it's not out of the realm for him to compete for a podium spot. It's really exciting to see. While he's not on CSC anymore, he's an American rider who has worked hard for so many years. It's great to see him finally receive the recognition he deserves.
Andy Schleck's comeback stage Sunday. I've had a lot of confidence in him, but he turned in the best ride of the day in Stage 15.
Seeing Damiano Cunego lose more time Sunday during a stage that was in his home country of Italy. Also, Oscar Pereiro's crash. During a sharp turn on the first descent, he fell over an embankment and crashed out of the race. You never want to see someone falling like that. The Tour is dangerous, and we can count ourselves lucky that there hasn't been one of those major pileups we've seen in the past. In any race, those dangers are there. The older you get and the more kids you have, the more you fear. When I was younger, I didn't think of the danger. Now, I'm the first one to hit the brakes. This was a sad day for the former Tour winner.
Last but not least ...
There haven't been too many times when I've made an effort to introduce myself to a young rider, especially during the twilight of my career. But I recently made that effort to meet young Team Columbia rider Mark Cavendish, who, after winning four stages in this year's Tour, pulled out of the race Sunday to concentrate on the Olympics for Great Britain. I am so impressed by this young rider. We are starting to see the real stars of cycling come out, and Cavendish has established himself as one of the best sprinters out there.
Get ready, folks. You are going to get to see some serious racing over the next few days. I am going to make sure to get all of my bike training out of the way early so I can watch the stages, even if my two young daughters will be pulling at my boot straps, wanting to play outside. Maybe Uncle Frankie will keep them interested.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.