Time trial takes on new importance

LE GRAND BORNAND, France -- Before this Tour de France began, there was a consensus that the race podium would be decided Saturday in the wailing wind and heat on the way up to the great, bald dome of Mont Ventoux. The final individual time trial, moved to a Thursday time slot like a television show lagging in the ratings, seemed reduced in importance.

Not so fast. Wednesday's grueling and fascinating Stage 17 action -- a queen stage without a crown, so to speak, as the peloton traversed five mountain passes but finished downhill -- reshuffled the overall standings in such a way that put the onus squarely on the time-trial specialists to gain ground and the climbers to dig in.

Andy and Frank Schleck augmented brotherly love with brotherly legwork by dropping all the contenders save for presumptive race winner Alberto Contador and his teammate Andreas Kloeden, who had been in fourth place entering Stage 17.

Contador then left his own teammate behind with a mystifying acceleration that added more suds to the ongoing Astana soap opera. He was openly criticized by Astana manager Johan Bruyneel, who said the maneuver might have cost the team a podium sweep. The Tour is coming to an end in the nick of time for this squabbling squad. Whatever happens on the road Thursday might be eclipsed by the scheduled announcement of a sponsorship deal for a new team to which Lance Armstrong and Bruyneel will jointly migrate next season.

The Schlecks and Contador ultimately finished together Wednesday, with Andy Schleck, the true podium contender in the family, working to give Frank the stage win. Team Saxo Bank's sibling act now occupies second and third place overall, with Andy sitting 2 minutes, 26 seconds shy of Contador and Frank another minute back. But as Frank said with some understatement, the brothers from Luxembourg are not "super-specialists" in the time trial that will unfold on a 25.2-mile course around crystalline Lake Annecy on Thursday.

Last year, in the crucible of the time trial on the penultimate day, Frank Schleck fell from second to sixth place like a hot brick, losing three minutes in the overall standings. Andy is modestly better at the discipline but not on a par with the other men threatening his placement.

Lurking within a minute and a half of third place overall are Armstrong, Kloeden and Garmin's Bradley Wiggins, all of whom backpedaled between two and three minutes in the standings Wednesday but could pick up significant time on the Schlecks in the race against the clock.

With the exception of Contador, who is clearly the best in the field on an uphill finish like Ventoux, this Tour hasn't revealed major differences in the climbing abilities of the men within hailing distance of the top three. So maybe it'll come down to the time trial after all.

Asked which stage would be more decisive, Thursday's or Saturday's, Andy Schleck put an optimistic spin on things. "Today was the decisive stage," he said. "I don't want to say I'm second in Paris, but I don't think it's going to wait until Mont Ventoux to decide the Tour de France. The guys who were climbing in the front today will also be at the front on Ventoux."

He added, "What I lose tomorrow, I'll regain on Ventoux."

That's certainly possible, and if Andy is as fearless as Frank says, perhaps the fact that he's a 24-year-old rider going for his first Tour podium won't strap a piano on his back. But the three older riders who will be vying for the other spots in the top three have a vast reservoir of experience, and in the case of Wiggins, a six-time Olympic medalist on the track, superlative talent at the event.

Wiggins declined to speak to reporters after Stage 17. With a gallant assist from Christian Vande Velde, Wiggins held his own until the final climb up the Col de la Colombiere but could not respond when Armstrong came off his wheel and attacked.

Garmin director Matt White said he thought Wiggins, a 29-year-old British star, would recover and excel on the mostly flat course. The Category 3 climb that punctuates the last third of the route "is harder than the profile indicates," White said, but with the climbing form Wiggins has shown during the past two and a half weeks, it could play to his favor rather than his detriment.

Armstrong has logged respectable performances in time trials this year but hasn't been his old dominant self, and Kloeden is a bit of a cipher given how much work he's put in for the team in this race.

Mont Ventoux will still be spectacular, as it always is, and Armstrong in particular has unfinished business on the most famous climb where he has never finished first. But the 2009 Tour might turn on the same thing it has for the past two years -- the solo efforts of men bent over their bikes in an attitude of prayer.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Reach her at bonniedford@aol.com.