Blazin' Saddles

Andy’s poker face

Blazin' Saddles

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There were four races being played out on the final ascent to Ax-3 Domaines on Sunday: one between breakaway winner Christophe Riblon and himself, a second between the two best riders vying for yellow, a third between Denis Menchov and Samuel Sanchez for the final podium position, and a fourth between the rest of the top eight.

Although it was momentarily rather extraordinary to see Menchov, the Silent Assassin, leave his magnum at home and come out to play with a blunderbuss for a change, the most captivating duel was that between Contador and Schleck - ironically enough, precisely because of its oft-banal tone and its attritional lack of fireworks.

The Tour's main protagonists stuck to one another like two magnets, playing games as if they were the only two riders on the mountain. At one point on the final climb it looked as if they both came to a complete standstill; the result being that for the first time in Tour history Menchov looked like the peloton's most explosive rider.

Schleck likened the battle to a game of poker, with candour dismissing the GC credentials of the likes of Sanchez and Menchov who "aren't a real threat to us". Contador too admitted there was little need to watch the other riders too closely. They were the kind of statements you hope both would live to rue - although deep down, you know they're entirely right.

"That meant there was a bit of space to play poker," Schleck added, creating in Saddles' head the arresting image of both him and his arch-rival, Condator Le Chiffre, settling down with martinis to a Casino Royale-style hand in tuxedos, one crying the odd tear of blood, the other beating up African heavies during a quick toilet break.

A lot has been said about Schleck's poker face - but truth be told, the young Luxemberger only ever has one facial expression: equine meets cherubic schoolboy. Think a fresher Ruud van Nistelrooy with an even larger nose and skin smoother than Tommy Voeckler's backside.

Unless he's riding on cobbles or hitting the deck on slippery descents - then you can add the tears and grimacing of a quivvering Irish choirboy on the eve of returning to his Catholic school in the depths of Ireland for another long term with Father McDonnel.

But if Schleck maintained composed features on both of stage 14's showpiece climbs, then Contador was playing an altogether different game. Either he was actually pretty shoddy, or he had perfected his bluff - for the Spaniard looked in a world of pain on the Port de Pailheres, and appeared to be on the ropes on numerous occasions on the final climb before launching successive attacks, each of which were countered by an equally strong hand from Schleck.

It was more like a game of Snap than Poker. Meanwhile, more than 14 minutes off the pace, Lance Armstrong wasn't so much Texas Hold 'Em but - according to his detractors - A**hole or S***head. A whole cluster of riders came home 20:43 down after playing a game of 21, while the chips were down for Mark Cavendish who crossed the line with the autobus after an afternoon of Bingo.

As for Alexandre Vinokourov, it was nice to see the veteran stay true to his word. Perhaps inspired by the game of Spades, the Kazakh rider dug deep all day and put in a decent shift for Astana in Contador's support after a couple of days rooting for himself - although at one point it did look like Vino was going for another solo ride up the final climb.

Returning to our two main players - as intriguing as their duel was, you have to think that Contador holds the trump cards at this stage. Schleck may be in yellow but his slender 31 second lead isn't big enough to justify him being so content with holding his rival's wheel. It's Schleck, not Contador, who should be rolling the die and doing the attacking - and he knows it.

"Tomorrow it's different and I might go 'all in' because I have to take time back on him," Schleck admitted. It will be interesting to see just what his face resembles when he really goes for it.

Quote of the day: "Do you want me to be honest with you? I'm f**ked. I just don't have the form. I'm not going to lie to you. So I'm trying my hardest and just battling on, rather than give up. It's as simple as that. I just haven't got it like last year, it's as simple as that. I don't know why. I just feel consistently mediocre. Not brilliant, not s***, just mediocre. Just sort of plateau." Bradley Wiggins delivers a brutally honest self assessment and invents a new state of being: plateau.

Stat of the day: All of the top eight in the GC finished in the top eight of stage 14 except Levi Leipheimer, who came home in tenth.

Word of the day: Riblong - n. an attempt at achieving something remarkable and alone. Eg. Father McDonnel agreed to change his ways. From here on in, he was going for a Riblong.

Stage 15 prediction: Celebrating 100 years of Pyrenean stages in the Tour, the 187-km trek from Pamiers to Bagnere de Luchon passes over the Col du Porte d'Aspet and the memorial to Fabio Casartelli, who met his death on the descent in 1995. The Italian was an old team-mate of Lance Armstrong who, 15 years ago, won a stage and dedicated it to Casartelli after a remarkable solo break.

Armstrong was quiet in the Pyrenean opener, possibly saving his energy for this one. With the Tour lost and the chance of a high finish in Paris but a dream, the American has promised "something interesting" in the Pyrenees. What better way to help restore his damaged reputation both on and off the bike than a sentimental attack to pay homage to an old colleague and friend?

What's more, Bagnere de Luchon is renowned for its hot baths and huge Vaporarium. The RadioShack team leader knows a lot about blowing hot air - as do Team Sky and Wiggins. Expect both to get into a break and fight it out on the dangerous descent after the Port de Bales.

Plat du jour: An ideal Pyrenean meal often starts with a garbure, a soup made of beans, ham, bits of duck and goose confit, cabbage, carrots, turnip, onion and garlic. Follow this up with a traditional magret du canard.

Peleton prattle: Which two riders, an Italian and a Belarusian, have made a pact to attack each day until one of them wins - and will no doubt be prepared to break protocol and go on the offensive on the outskirts of Paris next Sunday if need be.

Uses for Denis Menchov #1: A bowl of cornflakes - like the cereal, you forget just how good the Russian can be.

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