Stefan Schumacher of Gerolsteiner won today's Stage 20, a nail-biting 53km individual time trial from Cérilly to Saint Amand Montrond, as CSC-Saxo Bank's Carlos Sastre turned in the race of his life to hold onto the race leader's yellow jersey for Paris.
Cadel Evans finished seventh today, 1:05.55 behind Schumacher, but will finish the three-week Tour in second place Sunday. Schumacher's teammate Bernhard Kohl, wearing the mountain climber's polka dot jersey, finished ninth and earned the final podium spot in Paris.
This was Schumacher's second time trial victory in this year's Tour. Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia) finished third on the stage to virtually secure his place in the race's top ten.
Sastre overcomes pre-race predictions
The big battle, however, was between the Silence team's former race leader Evans and CSC team leader Sastre.
The 33-year-old Spaniard began the stage with a 1:34 lead on his Australian challenger and hopeful that wearing the yellow jersey would drive him on towards a virtual victory. Thanks to Evans' formidable time trialling skills, the Australian was tipped to overhaul his deficit and go one better than his runner-up place last year.
Stefan Schumacher won both time trials in the 2008 Tour
However Sastre, who is more known for his climbing skills, punched above his weight to finish 12th on the stage at 2:34 behind Schumacher. Evans could only finish seventh at 2:05, meaning he only took 29 seconds off his Spanish rival over the 53km course.
Sastre, barring a major mishap on the final stage to Paris on Sunday, will become Spain's third successive Tour de France champion after Alberto Contador last year and Oscar Pereiro in 2006.
"I just tried to stay calm throughout the whole race," said Sastre, a 33-year-old from Madrid who finished third on the race two years ago. "It was the chance of a lifetime and I knew I had to fight with every last drop."
Evans was the fourth last to start from the field, however by the time Sastre came past the first time check after 18km the writing already looked to be on the wall for the 31-year-old Australian.
Cadel Evans couldn't uncork enough power to upset Carlos Sastre before Paris
With just over a third of the course completed, he had managed to take only eight seconds off his Spanish rival. Evans appeared to speed up over the second half of the rolling course between Cerilly and Saint Amad Montrond, however Sastre dug deep and managed to retain most of his advantage.
Evans' Belgian team manager Marc Sergeant admitted he was surprised by the dominance of Sastre, whose respected climbing skills had allowed him to take the yellow jersey after he won the 17th stage climb to Alpe d'Huez.
"We expected a really tight battle and it didn't turn out like that," said the Belgian, who seemed to apportion some of the blame to Evans. "I saw straight away that (Evans) wasn't at ease on the bike."
At the end of the stage Evans was stunned to see his mother, Helen Cocks, who arrived from Australia on Saturday morning in the hope of seeing her son finish the day in yellow.
But it was another surprise, from Sastre, that capped Evans' penultimate stage of the race.
Asked if he was devastated, Evans replied: "No, not devastated. Just disappointed. I felt like I rode a good time trial. I had a good day, a good start - the first time check I got after six kilometres I was doing the same time as Cancellara, for me was a really really good indication."
Evans admitted he was surprised by Sastre's effort, but admitted he had been beaten throughout the race by the far stronger CSC team.
Carlos Sastre overtakes teammate and three-minute man Frank Schleck to seal yellow into Paris
"Sastre's ride in the time trial today was a real surprise. It comes down also to the fact they have two, two and a half times the budget we do, and straight away that can buy much better quality riders," added the Aussie, who for much of the race was left to fight for himself.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008