Andy Schleck wins stage, and now wants yellow
Luxembourg's Andy Schleck said he is happy to wait for his chance to take the Tour de France yellow jersey - as long as he has it on his shoulders in Paris.
Schleck claimed victory on the first real mountain stage of this year's race Sunday after jumping out of a group of favourites in the final kilometre of the 14km climb to Avoriaz, beating Spaniard Samuel Sanchez at the line.
While he was happy with the victory - on a day when Lance Armstrong's own victory hopes were dashed - Schleck played down suggestions that he should have attacked earlier on the final climb to take more time off his rivals.
"I'm very happy to have won the stage, but we have a strategy and I wanted to stick with it. It's not the time for experimenting," said the Saxo Bank climbing specialist. "Maybe I would have taken the yellow jersey, but my aim is to have it when the race finishes in Paris. And to do that, we have to go step by step. It will come."
Schleck's victory hopes seemed to be dented on stage three when his brother Frank, a key helper for him on the race's tough climbs, crashed on the cobblestones suffering a broken collarbone.
But since then, Andy has been doing a fine job on his own. He is now second overall at only 20secs behind overall leader Cadel Evans, a situation regarded as ideal because the Australian, unless he decides not to, will spend time and energy defending the race lead.
In third place is reigning champion Alberto Contador, whose Astana team set a punishing pace over the stage's two main climbs, at 1min 01 behind Evans, with Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck in fourth at 1:03.
Schleck admitted it was a punishing stage, and one that he felt nervous about beforehand.
"I was hoping it would be decisive, though I was quite nervous this morning," he added. "I knew it would be a stage where whoever had the legs would be up front. It is in these types of stages that we see the real favourites, the contenders and the others who are struggling.
"I was right up there 100 percent, both physically and mentally. It's a great victory for me, but now I'm taking aim at the yellow."
Monday is the race's first rest day, while Tuesday's eighth stage from Morzine to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is arguably the hardest in the Alps.
It features five climbs, including four mountain passes, for a total of 66.1km of racing uphill - 25.5km of which will be over the Col de la Madeleine whose summit is 32km from the downhill finish line.
Evans bounces back from scare to take yellow
Cadel Evans bounced back from an early scare on the first real mountain stage of the Tour de France on Sunday to match all his rivals and take possession of the yellow jersey.
Evans, Australia's two-time runner-up who finished a disappointing 30th overall in 2009, started the day in second place only 1min 25sec off the pace of Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel of Quick Step.
By the end of the 189km mountain test, which took in the two category one monster climbs of Ramaz and Avoriaz, Evans took the yellow jersey for the first time since 2008 to lead Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, who won the stage, by 20secs.
The Australian knows the hard work will come in the final week of the race which features four punishing days in the Pyrenees, and then a long time trial on the penultimate stage.
But ahead of Monday's rest day, which is followed by a final day in the Alps, the BMC team leader was doubly happy - to still be in the race, and to have the lead.
"I don't know if everyone saw my fall after 6 km. I thought then that the Tour might be over," said Evans, who had to ride most of the 2008 edition hampered by injuries after a crash early in the race.
"I had to get treatment from the doctor."
As Chavanel is not a specialist climber the Frenchman knew he would give up the race lead, but it was not until late on the 14km climb to Avoriaz that Evans was assured of the yellow jersey.
With Spain's reigning champion Alberto Contador also third at 1min 01sec, the Aussie might not have too much time to enjoy being the Tour de France leader.
Evans admits his BMC team, which has proved to be far more supportive in his bid than Silence-Lotto were last year, will have to come up with a plan.
"We'll wait for the stages after tomorrow. We'll think about it and come up with plan," he added. "The Pyrenees are very hard, and Andy's going well. Also, Contador and Astana are really strong, so we'll have to see and decide how to approach the mountains."
Despite Evans' scrapes from his crash, seven-time champion Lance Armstrong came off far worse, the American crashing before the climb to Ramaz and losing nearly 12 minutes to finish more than 13 minutes behind Evans.
While Schleck suggested the peloton owed it to the American to wait, Evans was less generous in his assessment. He remembers only too well the times rivals did not wait for him: "To have a crash in a mountain stage of a Tour can be really difficult.
"Today I crashed but two years ago when I crashed in the Tour I had one of hardest days of my career on the stage to Hautacam, with all the bruising and pain. That day, I got dropped with (sprinter) Julian Dean on the first climb and was fighting for yellow at the end of day.
"I went from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. It was a bit different today."
A year after losing the race by 23sec to Contador in 2007, Evans was pipped to the yellow jersey on the way to Alpe d'Huez in 2008 by eventual winner Carlos Sastre.
Asked what he has learned since his last stint in the yellow jersey, Evans added: "Believe in yourself, believe in the people around you and stay calm."
Armstrong manager laments crash, not allegations
Lance Armstrong lost all chance of winning this year's Tour de France because of injuries suffered in a crash and not because of pressure caused by more damning doping allegations, his team said Sunday.
Armstrong endured arguably his worst day of his career on the world's biggest bike race after he crashed several times on the eighth stage to finish over almost 12 minutes adrift at the summit of Avoriaz in the French Alps.
Ahead of the race's first rest day, when his RadioShack team manager Johan Bruyneel is likely to hand the leader's torch to Levi Leipheimer, the seven-time champion is now in 39th place overall at 13:26 behind new race leader Cadel Evans of Australia.
Cancer survivor Armstrong came into his final Tour campaign hoping to challenge reigning champion Alberto Contador for the race's coveted yellow jersey, albeit under a cloud of suspicion following the publication of allegations by former teammate Floyd Landis that Armstrong was involved in systematic doing while at their old team, US Postal.
Instead, the American was left with the also-rans for the final two climbs of the race - and is now uncertain to continue.
"It's sad to see, but that's sport," said Bruyneel, the Belgian who helped spearhead Armstrong's competitive return to the sport after he successfully battled testicular cancer in 1998.
"There's a time for everything. He's been beaten by bad luck more than any physical deficiency. It's certainly the end of his aspirations to win the Tour de France."
Bruyneel played down suggestions that Landis's allegations had put extra pressure on Armstrong.
"That's got nothing to do with it," said Bruyneel. "He had a setback at the start of the stage when he almost crashed trying to avoid a fall in front of him, then 10km before the climb to (the Col de) Ramaz he had quite a heavy crash.
"Once he was on the Ramaz he was in difficulty. On the last climb (to Avoriaz) he told me he'd taken quite a big knock to his hip, and that it was impossible to produce the power he needed to make it back.
"Once he was behind and he had no chance of coming back, he effectively threw in the towel."
In between the Ramaz and Avoriaz, Armstrong fell again when two Euskaltel riders tumbled in front of him as they crested the easy, category three climb at Les Gets. After the American's setbacks on stage three's ride over the cobbles to Arenberg, where he suffered a puncture and lost time to all his rivals, Bruyneel said it couldn't have been a worst first week.
"Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. It started on the cobblestones, we had some bad luck that day when Lance suffered punctures and lost time," added the Belgian.
He said RadioShack, whose best placed rider is now Leipheimer in eighth overall at 2:14 behind Evans, will now have to readjust their ambitions for the race.
"Let's look and see during the rest day how Lance's injuries are, and how everyone else is and then we can adapt our strategies and objectives for the rest of the race."
Sastre happy to move up as Armstrong falters
Former Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre was finally given reason to smile after relaunching his stuttering campaign on the tough eighth stage on Sunday.
As American Lance Armstrong suffered arguably his worst day on the race Sastre held firm with a group containing most of the favourites as they raced over two category one climbs towards the summit finish at Avoriaz.
Cervelo team leader Sastre, who beat Australian Cadel Evans to the title in 2008, eventually finished among a group containing Evans and reigning champion Alberto Contador.
While another challenger, Andy Schleck, attacked in the final kilometre to win the stage, and Evans took the yellow jersey, Sastre moved up 14 places to 12th overall at 2min 40sec behind the Australian.
"I am satisfied with today's stage. I was with the leaders of the race and I didn't lose time to any important riders in this Tour de France," said the Spaniard.
"It was a very hard stage. The first nine days of the Tour were not easy for anyone. I am happy that all the problems we had at the beginning of the race are behind us.
"Now everything is good. I am feeling better every day and can be optimistic for the coming days. I am very satisfied.
"The last two kilometres were hard, but the last 15 kilometres were very hard. We were there and I had the support from my teammates that I needed."
Armstrong suffered two crashes on the stage, and one untimely one just at the foot of the 14km climb to the Col de la Ramaz which left him chasing his rivals.
The seven-time winner eventually trailed in nearly 12 minutes adrift and admitted: "My Tour is over."
Climbing specialist Sastre meanwhile will be looking forward to a third week which features four days in the Pyrenees.
Cervelo sport director Jean-Paul van Poppel said he was delighted with Sastre's race: "You see that the first mountain stage and only 13 riders are left in the final, and Carlos is there.
"We also saw other riders have some troubles. It's a wonderful start, because we know we only get better from here."
Hesjedal steps into yellow jersey mix
Canada's Ryder Hesjedal arguably gave the best indication of how tough life can be on the Tour de France when he had to get off his bike and walk at the end of the eighth stage on Sunday.
But after an epic day of racing in the Alps which prompted the first big selection among the yellow jersey contenders, and brought an end to Lance Armstrong's victory hopes, Hesjedal was rewarded for his efforts.
The Canadian has been named as Garmin-Transitions leader following the retirement of American challenger Christian Vande Velde due to broken ribs he suffered in a crash on stage two.
And on the first real day of climbing, Hesjedal honoured his new role by keeping pace with all the specialist climbers to sit sixth overall at 1min 11sec behind new leader Cadel Evans. Given he is not a specialist climber, Hesjedal's team boss Matt White was quick to put his ride into perspective.
"Today was the first real selection of the Tour de France contenders. It's safe to say that Ryder has done some of the rides of his life here, and today was no exception," said the Aussie.
"Losing Christian was obviously a negative for the team, but it provided Ryder with an opportunity to step up into a GC (general classification) role - and he's done it. I'm really proud of what he's accomplished here already and for now, we'll keep taking it day by day."
The pain was plain to see as Hesjedal had to be helped by one team official as he walked gingerly past with his bike shortly after arriving 1min 14sec behind stage winner Andy Schleck, and 1:04 behind a group containing all the other favourites including Spaniard Alberto Contador.
"As much as I wanted to stay with the Contador group, I knew my limits on the last climb," said Hesjedal.
"I lost it a little and after that I decided to ride tempo. Fourteenth on the stage and sixth overall is beyond what I ever expected, so I'm happy.
"I'm looking forward to the rest day and getting at it again next week."
© AFP 2010