Andy Schleck took possession of the Tour de France yellow jersey in dramatic fashion Tuesday after an epic day of racing that virtually ended Cadel Evans's victory hopes.
Luxembourger Schleck, the Saxo Bank climbing specialist who finished runner-up to Alberto Contador in 2009, now leads what appears to be a two-man race with a 41sec lead on the Spaniard.
Frenchman Sandy Casar took the stage honours after a thrilling 204km ninth stage from Morzine which included the gruelling 25.5km ascension over the Col de la Madeleine, the fourth and last climb of the race.
Casar, of Française des Jeux, was one of the last remnants of a larger breakaway group which was joined in the final kilometre by a trio which included Schleck and reigning champion Alberto Contador.
Casar had done most of the work dragging his three companions to the line in the final kilometres, but shortly after they were caught he pulled to the front inside the final kilometre and held on to claim his third career stage win on the race. Having come second twice during stages of the race - notably in 2007 and in 2009 - Casar made a determined effort not to lose out again
"When you haven't experienced it, you don't know the difference between first and second place. But since 2007, it's never been the same for me," said the Frenchman. "Second place is horrible. I've finished second twice and today I just didn't want to do it again. The only thing on my mind was victory."
Andy Schleck in yellow
It was the first time in the race Schleck has taken possession of the yellow jersey, and the feat did not leave the Luxembourger unaffected.
But he kept enough composure to challenge Contador to an imminent duel in the Pyrenees, where four stages beginning Sunday will play a key role in deciding the outcome of this year's Tour.
"We're both at about the same level, although now I have a lead of 41secs," said Schleck, who won the stage to Morzine-Avoriaz on Sunday to close to within 20sec of Evans.
"It's now up to him (Contador) to attack in the Pyrenees."
With Lance Armstrong already out of the equation on Sunday, and Evans' collapse Tuesday, Contador said he now had a clearer idea of who his main rival is. I know what my aim is now, and which wheel I have to follow - Andy Schleck's. I think he's the most dangerous," said the Spaniard, who up until now has been largely unchallenged on the race's tough climbs.
"It was a really epic stage, and the very hard climb to the Madeleine left a lot of people struggling."
Evans tries to limit the damage
Overnight race leader Evans started trailing halfway through the climb of the Madeleine and shortly afterwards Contador and Schleck made the Australian's task even more difficult when they attacked all the other favourites.
Schleck proved the more offensive, the Luxembourger accelerating several times in a bid to shake Contador off his wheel. When that tactic failed, the pair agreed on a pact of non-aggression and raced the remainder of the climb together.
Schleck and Contador
Schleck and Contador came over the summit with a 2:10 deficit to the leading group, while Evans crossed over seven minutes later.
Evans eventually finished 8:09 behind Schleck and Contador, dropping 17 places to 18th at 7:47 behind Schleck.
The Australian, a two-time runner-up in 2007 and 2008, came into the race after an impressive Giro d'Italia where he finished fifth overall.
Admitting his Tour is now all but over, the Aussie later revealed that a broken elbow sustained in a crash early on the eighth stage Sunday had left him under par.
"I'm not at my normal level, but when you're in the yellow jersey at the Tour whether you're good or not you have to be there," said Evans. "I haven't seen the results yet but I'm pretty sure it's over for this year."
© AFP 2010
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