Tour de France 20: Cadel Evans on verge of first tour win

Schlecks fail the test in Grenoble

It’s called ‘the race of truth’, and in Grenoble this afternoon that moniker was never more appropriate as the 42.5km final time trial of the Tour de France was pivotal in determining that – mishaps aside – Cadel Evans (BMC) should be crowned 2011 champion after a superb performance on the roads around this Alpine city that saw him take the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek).

The stage had widely been tipped to be a deciding factor in the outcome of the 2011 Tour de France and with the top three separated by less than a minute, those predictions would prove correct. The only question that remained was: who would be the beneficiary of the race of truth?

The answer: Cadel Evans. The Australian came through all three intermediate time checks second fastest to ride the time trial of his life and put all past disappointments behind him after a week in which he has also been forced to chase the yellow jersey when those around him were more prepared to wait and watch.

Twice a runner-up in the year’s biggest event, Evans grabbed the maillot jaune when it counted the most to wear the leader’s jersey into Paris tomorrow, the final day of the 2011 edition, after he overhauled his 57-second overnight deficit to previous leader Andy Schleck.

“It’s not over until I cross the finish line in Paris – I hope it’s not raining,” Evans said after the finish. “I can’t quite believe it right now… I did the best time trial I could today – every day we rode the best we could and every day the team did 99.9 percent, if not 100 percent, of what they could do.

“I had a couple of ‘off’ days, a couple of moments of bad luck, but we just kept to our plan and every day just kept working… I can’t believe it.”

Evans had ridden the same course during the Critérium du Dauphiné in a time of 56:47 – today he did it in 55:40, which was good enough for second place in the stage but first in the general classification, which was the ultimate goal for the BMC Racing Team captain.

The man who took out the stage was the same rider who dominated on the course during the Dauphiné, Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad). The German won in a time six seconds faster than that which he recorded back in June.

The HTC-Highroad rider, who has been a vital workhorse for Mark Cavendish’s ambitions during this Tour, showed that in all likelihood he could be the heir apparent to Fabian Cancellara, convincingly beating the current time trial world champion and the rest of the field, with a time of 55:33.

“I was pretty nervous when I saw Cadel Evans coming into the finish,” said Martin afterwards. “Now I’m really happy; for a long time my biggest goal was to win a stage at the Tour – now it has happened.”

The German rode a controlled, powerful race and explained after he got off the bike: “We got into the start and I felt good, then my confidence grew. Last month I won here and so I just tried to focus on my rhythm – the course helped me with that.

“Knowing I’d gone well previously on this course helped me take the time I did today.”

World champion stamps early mark

Despite the lumpy parcours, Leopard-Trek’s Fabian Cancellara set the fastest early time of 57:15. While that put the current TT world champion in the box seat, Saxo Bank-Sungard rider Richie Porte knocked him off with an excellent performance to record 57:03, which would be good enough for fifth by the stage’s end.

It was surprise packet Thomas De Gendt of Vacansoleil-DCM who raised the bar, however, taking a second off the Australian’s mark and moving into the stage lead. He would eventually finish fourth, a commendable effort from the Belgian.

After a Tour where his chances for personal success have been limited, Martin made the most of his free rein in the time trial, putting in a massive effort to topple the men who had gone before him. The German knocked 38 seconds off De Gendt’s time for the first intermediate check (a massive 1:02 ahead of Cancellara) and continued in that vein for the remainder of his ride to take first on the stage.

De Gendt’s time wouldn’t be bettered until Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) clocked 56:39; it came as the battle for overall supremacy was being played out on the course, with the Spaniard aiming to topple Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and possibly Frank Schleck (Leopard Trek) for a place on the podium in Paris.

All eyes on the leading trio

With just 57 seconds separating the Schleck brothers and Evans, all eyes were on the battle between the leading trio. Evans has always been a superior time trial rider to the Luxembourger siblings and that would prove critical to his chances of overall success against the pair today.

And so it was – Evans had almost overhauled yellow jersey Andy’s advantage even before the first intermediate time check at 15km, and that trend would continue throughout the remaining 27.5km, spelling the end of the younger brother’s maillot jaune dreams for another year.

With Contador up the road ahead of him, Evans continued to pick off the defending champion’s split times, which had been consistently the second best of the day; at the next two intermediates the Australian came through just behind Martin to eventually finish a mere seven seconds slower than the man who had also beaten him in the corresponding stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

Behind Evans however, the wheels were coming off the Schleck general classification cart as both Andy and Frank faded to finish well down the standings on the day and slip to 1:34 and 2:30 in arrears respectively on the overall standings. Frank had said earlier in the event that he’d prefer to be 20th overall and have his brother on the top step of the podium, but in 2011 both brothers will share the lower two steps of the dais in Paris.

Lower in the classement général, Thomas Voeckler managed to maintain his fourth place overall with a time of 57:47 for the 42.5km, a sterling performance from the Europcar captain, who just yesterday had failed quite spectacularly in his attempt to hold onto the yellow jersey against all odds on the Alpe d’Huez.

Another notable performance came from another Frenchman, Jean-Christophe Péraud, whose sixth place saw him jump into 10th on the general classification and salvage something from the Tour for Ag2r-La Mondiale, whose main GC hope Nicolas Roche didn’t quite live up to expectations.

For Evans however, the disappointment of Tour campaigns past should be tempered by what happened today. Despite those previous years, which included a broken elbow during last year’s edition and crashes whilst in yellow three years ago, Evans’ plan remained the same throughout the three weeks.

“Like I’ve said all along – I just want to do the best Tour I can, the best I’m capable of and if I’m capable of winning it I just keep trying and keep working at it,” he said.

“I just rode the best time trial I could and we just had our plan every day. We did everything we could – everyone from the guys who drove the truck at 6.30 this morning to John Lelangue yelling in my ear every step of the way, it’s a real team effort.”

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