Cadel Evans closed in on his ambition of becoming the first Australian to win the Tour de France on Saturday. But the 30-year-old knows that ahead of three tough days of climbing, a conspicuous lack of teammates accompanying him on the tough Pyrenean slopes could be a significant handicap.
Evans produced a performance to remember on Saturday's first big time trial, finishing second at 1min 14secs behind surprise winner Alexandre Vinokourov to end all hopes of an Astana team 1-2-3. He is now just one minute behind the even more surprising race leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, the Rabobank rider who has attracted headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent days due to revelations of several missed random doping controls in the past two years.
Perhaps the best thing that happened to Evans on Saturday was not pulling on the race's yellow jersey. That would have forced him to go out and try to defend the race lead, without teammates who would be able to stay with him until the final climbs on stages 14-16.
Sunday's first day in the Pyrenees, which includes three climbs in total and the race's second summit finish at Plateau de Beille, could see few skirmishes as the battle for the yellow jersey moves into the next stage. It is on Monday's 15th stage that Evans' tactical nous, and legs could be tested to the full by the Astana and Discovery Channel teams, who unlike the former mountain biker will be team-handed throughout most of the day.
Grabbing the yellow jersey, he admitted, would not have been such a good idea. "I just wanted to do a good time trial, and for me to finish second on this course at this time of the Tour is a good sign, but the best is yet to come I think," said Evans. "The Alps weren't easy, but the Pyrenees, there's going to be some good racing out there the next couple of days."
While Evans was remarkable, so too was Vinokourov, who continued his stunning comeback from injury to claim his first ever time trial win on the Tour. Still nursing injured knees from his fall in the fifth stage, 'Vino' moved up to ninth overall at 5min 10sec behind Rasmussen, who is giving Tour bosses a headache by insisting he wants to keep the lead all the way to Paris.
"I'm looking forward to the Pyrenees and returning to my terrain and enjoying riding my bike," said the skinny Danish climber, who stunned a host of time trial specialists by finishing 11th behind Vinokourov at 2min 55sec.
In the wake of Vinokourov losing nearly six minutes to his rivals in the past two weeks there had been doubts over whether he, or his more on-form German teammate Andreas Klöden would lead Astana's yellow jersey bid. After this performance the 33-year-old Kazakhstani, who is possibly competing in his final Tour, virtually relegated Klöden down the pecking order.
"Today it was very important to show those people who ruled me out of the Tour that it's far from being over," said Vinokourov. "My legs have been getting back to normal in the past two days, and my motivation is high."
With Vinokourov and Klöden well-placed in the general classification, they have attacking options which Evans doesn't. And the Kazakh is determined to give Rasmussen, and the rest of his rivals a rough ride.
"The next two stages are difficult, and I don't fear Rasmussen," added Vino. "We'll be attacking. The Tour doesn't finish until Paris."
Rasmussen meanwhile feels he can hold on to the lead through the Pyrenees. "A minute advantage over guys like Cadel is enough to keep the jersey through the Pyrenees, but not for the last time trial," said the Dane. "So I will have to attack my nearest opponents if I want to keep the jersey all the way to Paris - which I certainly do."
Evans has his work cut out, and there's still Discovery Channel to account for. On the day Vinokourov almost abandoned the Tour in Briançon, the Australian tried but failed to counter a second attack by 24-year-old Spaniard Alberto Contador as they raced towards the Galibier summit.
Contador on Saturday showed his precocious talent by finishing ahead of his American team leader Levi Leipheimer, moving up to third at only 1:31 behind Evans. "Everyone's still so close, it's only 1:31 back to Contador," said Evans.
"There's steeper climbs in the Pyrenees, I know he's (Contador) going to be good. Astana have an advantage with two (leaders), and Discovery have another guy (Leipheimer). The way things are, with two Discovery and Astana riders in the classification now - that's going to be a bit tricky - but I've just got to keep going and see what we can do."
© AFP 2007