Cadel Evans takes lead, poised for title
GRENOBLE, France -- Silencing his doubters once and for all, Cadel Evans will now be wearing the prized Tour de France leader's yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees.
The two-time runner-up locked up Australia's first victory in cycling's greatest race on Saturday by overcoming Luxembourg's Andy Schleck in the final time trial.
The suspense-filled race against the clock, with just seconds separating the two racers, culminated one of the most exciting Tours in recent memory after three weeks marked by crashes, climbing agony and bone-chilling rains.
This year's edition of the 108-year-old race, with nail-biting tension through to the end, offered one of the most exciting finishes in years -- and without a serious doping blight that marred past Tours.
Although there is one more stage, Evans has victory sealed: 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.
After using racing savvy to keep close in the last Tour days, Evans on Saturday turned on the juice with his skill as a time trialer to erase his 57-second gap to Schleck -- and reverse it, into a lead of 1:34. The Luxembourg rider is now poised for his third second-place finish in a row.
To win, Evans needed to vault over not one but two Schlecks: Andy's older brother Frank also had a 4-second edge on the Australian going into the 26.4-mile time trial in and around Grenoble.
The fraternal duo, who had buried any sibling rivalry, had magnificently applied their own strategy to get within a day of victory by delivering a one-two punch of attacks in the mountains that kept their rivals guessing. While it worked in the climbs, the time-trial always loomed as their weakness.
With defending champion Alberto Contador on the back foot after a dismal start because of crashes, Evans knew if he could stay ahead of the Spaniard, the time trial could be his trump card against the Schlecks.
This was the opposite of the Lance Armstrong era, when the Texan seven-time champ often put his mastery of the race from the first mountain stage -- and rarely relented. For Evans, victory comes more sneakily.
"The key aspect to our Tour is consistency," he said.
After two second-place finishes, and at age 34, Evans knew his days of possible victory were running out. He and his BMC team left little to chance, and he rode a lighter pre-Tour season to focus on the sport's holy grail.
"This is the victory of a complete rider," Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. "It is the consecration of a career."
Evans' caution came a striking contrast to 2008, a year when he was a pre-race favorite but his race turned to disappointment -- and was infected by some hubris. After gaining the yellow shirt that year, his team introduced him like a rock star at a glitzy rest day event, and he sipped champagne.
Five days later, he lost the jersey in the Alps -- to Frank Schleck. By the finish, Evans had lost to Carlos Sastre, failing to overcome the Spaniard in a final time trial. That time, the come-from-behind bid failed.
But the lesson had sunk in, as Evans acknowledged Saturday: "No one wanted to know me back in August 2008."
On the victor's podium Saturday, a red-eyed Evans was choked up, holding back tears before hurling the winner's bouquet into the crowd.
"I really can't quite believe it right now," said Evans, who won the world championship in 2009. But the Tour was still his main goal: "I have been concentrating on one event for so long."
The emotional Australian got especially moved when he spoke of former coach Aldo Sassi, who "often believed in me more than I did," and had hoped that Evans would win the Tour. The Italian died in December.
"For him today to see me now, would be quite something," Evans said, his voice wavering.
The 20th stage was won by Tony Martin of Germany. Evans finished second in the stage -- 7 seconds behind Martin -- and was 2:31 faster than Andy Schleck.
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Riders described the course -- mostly flat featuring two small hills -- as quite technical, with a variety of tight turns. After morning rains doused the roads, sunshine had dried them up by the time the leading contenders left.
By the first intermediate time check at the 9.3-mile mark, Evans had already erased 36 seconds of his deficit to Andy Schleck and was 34 seconds faster than the elder Schleck.
At the second, at 17.1 miles, Andy Schleck's lead had vanished -- Evans was 1:32 faster -- and the Australian kept gaining time as the stage progressed to the finish.
Schleck, in what might've been a tactical mistake, told his Leopard Trek team managers not to tell him about the time spreads between him and Evans as they raced on the course at the same time.
The two Tours in which Evans was second were beset by high-profile doping scandals. This year there was only one, involving a lesser-known rider: Alexandr Kolobnev tested positive for a banned masking agent, and quit.
The International Cycling Union has made a top priority of rooting out doping, with hundreds of tests conducted at the race this year -- but Evans said he didn't doesn't know whether the stiffer controls had had an impact.
"I think the best thing I can do as an athlete is to be a good example," Evans said. "Others can make their own opinions."
The Schlecks -- whichever one -- were vying to be the first Luxembourg rider since Charly Gaul was the first and only winner from that country in 1958.
As second and third overall, they will be the first brothers to share the Tour's winners podium on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.
"I'll be on the podium with my brother, that's fantastic, everybody is happy. Of course I cannot jump in the air, because I was supposed to win the Tour," Andy Schleck said. "Congrats to Cadel -- he fought until the end, rode a perfect race. So did I but only one can win."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press