French rider Cyril Dessel won the 16th stage of the Tour de France on Tuesday, as CSC-Saxo Bank's race leader Frank Schleck of Luxembourg finished the 157km stage from Cueno in Italy to Jausiers with his seven-second lead on Austrian Bernhard Kohl intact, with Cadel Evans still in third at eight seconds behind.
Spaniard Carlos Sastre, Schleck's teammate at CSC, is fourth at 49 seconds, while Rabobank's Denis Menchov is now at 1:13 after losing 35 seconds to his rivals on the tricky descent towards the finish line.
"The Tour can't be won in a day, but it can be lost in a day. We're going to try and make our rivals lose the tour tomorrow," said Schleck, the 28-year-old Luxembourg champion.
How the race unfolded
After a quiet Tour de France thus far, Dessel seized his chance with both hands after escaping from a small breakaway group at the end of a long descent, outsprinting compatriot Sandy Casar prior to the finish line.
"I've come a long way since 2007, which was a really difficult year for me," said Dessel after claiming his team's first stage win of this year's race. "I was really at rock bottom because of my health problems, but thankfully I was given a lot of support from friends and family. I worked hard to get back into shape and today all that effort has paid off."
Dessel's bid to shine on the race's earlier stages was kept in check by yet another health problem, although one that was a little more delicate.
"I was in real pain at the start of the Tour because of hemmorhoids," he admitted. "But today I knew I couldn't let the opportunity go begging because it's not every year there's a stage that suits you. I came close in 2006, and I got the yellow jersey as consolation. After my wins earlier this year I knew I wanted to add a stage win from the Tour. It's great, a bit of a relief really - and it's good for French cycling."
Dessel had been part of an earlier breakaway group that caught Germany's Stefan Schumacher shortly before the summit of the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond.
After a long descent with three other riders, the 33-year-old Frenchman made his decisive move inside the last kilometre to finish ahead of Casar, with Spaniard David Arroyo finishing third ahead of Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych.
"I knew from looking at the race book there was a bend in the final 150 metres so I knew I had to attack with 400 metres to go because after the bend it would have been impossible to overtake," he added. "It was a really tense finish and I told myself I had to stay as calm as possible, but in the end it worked out perfectly."
CSC knows it's do or die on Alpe d'Huez
CSC team manager Bjarne Riis said adverse wind conditions atop the day's second unclassified climb, the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond, had scuppered their plan to leave their rivals in their wake.
The Dane, who won the 1996 Tour de France, said they will now have to give it full gas on Wednesday if they are to eliminate Evans ahead of the time trial, in which the Australian is a big favourite.
"It was quite windy, too much to attack, and that was our biggest problem today. We weren't able to attack and make the difference," Riis told AFP after the stage. "Tomorrow will suit us better. I think the big battle will be on the Alpe d'Huez, but after the Galibier and the Croix de Fer (climbs), if you're suffering on the Alpe d'Huez you can really lose a few minutes. If you go too deep today, you pay for it tomorrow. Everybody suffered a lot today, everybody made a lot of sacrifices and some will pay for that in their legs tomorrow. But hopefully not us."
CSC once again benefited from the sterling pace work of Frank Schleck's younger brother Andy. But despite boasting the numerical advantage, Evans has emerged as one of the big winners after the second of three days in the Alps.
Both Menchov and American Christian Vande Velde are, like Evans, big contenders in the time trial. While Menchov lost half a minute, Vande Velde dropped virtually out of contention after failing to keep pace with the CSC-led chasing peloton on the way over the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond.
He finished two and a half minutes behind his rivals and dropped to sixth place overall at 3:15 behind Schleck. If the 32-year-old American had held on a little further, his yellow jersey bid would still be alive.
Evans, for one, was one beneficiary of the strong headwind blowing over the summit of the Restefond, which at 2,802 metres altitude is the highest road pass in Europe.
"CSC rode an incredible pace for the entire climb, that made it a bit difficult," said Evans. The Australian, a strong downhiller, had targeted the tricky descent towards Jausiers as his chance to take some time back from his rivals.
But an accident minutes earlier involving South African John-Lee Augustyn - which brought an official on a motorbike to his aid at the roadside - almost caused disaster for Evans.
First, he had to correct himself to avoid hitting the motorbike, and that hampered his intention to follow Spaniard Samuel Sanchez when the Euskaltel rider attacked.
"I was a bit unlucky on the descent, I wanted to go with Sanchez when he went and just in the corner when I went to pass him a motorbike was just stopped on the exit of the corner," added Evans. "That gave him 200 metres and he stayed there until a kilometre from the end."
Evans ended up coming over the downhill finish in a ten-man group which contained Schleck and Sastre, with Menchov trailing in 35 seconds later. However the Aussie acknowledged the race is still far from over.
"Tomorrow's going to be the mountain stage of the Tour, so it's a long way from being over yet."
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008