Cadel Evans looks at possible allies for the Alps

Yellow jersey faces first tough test on Sunday

Cadel Evans has been poring over cycling's history books as he prepares to put his yellow jersey on the line during three crucial days of climbing at the Tour de France.

But the 31-year-old Aussie has not ruled out trying to forge alliances, if needed, in a bid to counter some of his big rivals for the race's main prize.

Evans finished the 14th stage in Digne-les-Bains on Saturday suffering, like most of the peloton, from the searing temperatures as the race headed slowly upwards to the foot of the Alps. He was still a little surprised to be still in the race lead.

"I'm kind of surprised to hold the jersey this far, to be honest," said Evans.

He retained his one-second lead on Luxembourg's Frank Schleck of the powerful CSC team, but after four days of a lull in the yellow jersey battle Evans knows it's now time to re-arm. The first climb on Sunday's 15th stage is the Col d'Agnel, and could give Evans and his Silence team a wake-up call.

Schleck's CSC team drove a chasing peloton at a furious pace in the difficult 10th stage in the Pyrenees, dropping Spaniard Alejandro Valverde virtually out of contention on the way over the Col du Tourmalet.

Evans held on as CSC continued what American Christian Vande Velde called a "sickening pace" through the valley towards the foot of the Hautacam climb, where an attack by Schleck ultimately left Leonardo Piepoli with the stage win, and Evans with the yellow jersey.

A similar scenario is possible on Sunday. The Col d'Agnel is a massive 20.5 km long at an average gradient of 6.6 percent. A long descent leads through a valley to the summit finish at Prato Nevoso in Italy.

Perhaps understandably, Evans would not speculate what would happen on the Col d'Agnel, where all hell could break loose. But he has already done his homework on what happened the last time a race finished at Prato Nevoso. It has hosted a stage finish of the Giro twice.

"It depends on what happens over the first climb," added Evans when asked if he expected Sunday's stage to host a major battle for the yellow jersey. "We finish on top of a hill (Prato) but I think it's a fast climb. They finished there on the Giro and I think at the finish it was quite a big group."

Ahead of Sunday, Schleck is Evans' biggest threat on paper. But American Christian Vande Velde is third at 38ecs, Austrian Markus Fothen is fourth at 46 and Russian Denis Menchov is fifth at 57.

More importantly, Spaniard Carlos Sastre, of Schleck's CSC team, is sixth at 1:28, giving the Danish outfit further tactical options. At this stage, none of the top six can be ruled out.

Evans has already acknowledged the dominance of the CSC team, but he hopes teammates Yaroslav Popovych, Mario Aerts and Dario Cioni will step up to the plate when he needs them. On the climb over the Col du Tourmalet, all three Silence riders fell victim to CSC's crushing pace. It remains to be seen if they will make amends. But Evans did not deny that he has already started looking towards potential allies from other teams, an option he admits is never straightforward.

"When you talk about collaboration among competitors it's a sensitive issue," he said Saturday. "Everyone who wants to win the race has their own interests to look after. But it depends on the moment and who has the most to lose and who has the most to gain.

"We don't have a strong team for the mountains, I'm well aware of that and I'm sure my competitors are as well. But so far the team has raced way beyond what I expected of them."

© AFP 2008

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