Australia's Cadel Evans succumbed to the dominance of Team CSC-Saxo Bank on a thrilling 17th stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday when Spaniard Carlos Sastre took possession of the yellow jersey after winning atop the famed Alpe d'Huez.
However Evans, last year's runner-up, could cause some last-gasp drama this Saturday by claiming overall victory in the penultimate stage time trial.
Sastre, a former podium finisher, attacked Evans and a handful of other favourites at the bottom of the 13.3km climb to the legendary Alpe d'Huez and held on to win the stage and take the race lead.
On what was the third and final day in the Alps, Sastre - who began the day 49 seconds adrift of teammate Frank Schleck - leads the Luxembourg champion by 1:24, with Bernhard Kohl of Austria dropping to third overall at 1:33.
Evans lost 2:15 to Sastre as he battled to limit the damage on the Alpe's famous 21 hairpin bends. The Australian, of Silence-Lotto, is fourth overall at 1:34 but crucially has a one-minute lead on Russian Denis Menchov of the Rabobank team. Although four days of the race remain, Evans will battle for the yellow jersey on the 20th stage's 'race of truth', held over 53km.
Team CSC was delighted to win the stage and take control of the race, but Evans - who is more of a specialist in the longer race against the clock than Sastre and Schleck - remains firmly in contention.
CSC manager Bjarne Riis must have been hoping for Sastre to take more time from Evans on the third of the day's 'unclassified' climbs. However the Dane, the Tour winner in 1996, said he could not be happier with his new team leader.
"I'm not thinking about the time trial. It's not won yet but Carlos has a solid lead," said Riis. "My team were super-motivated and once again they were really strong. They all worked hard, and our plan came together. We knew we had to attack to drop everyone. When Sastre attacked first at the bottom, he was really strong."
Evans, like the first eight finishers of the stage, was called immediately to a doping control. Once he emerged the 31-year-old was more or less upbeat about a stage that, given he was on his own in terms of his team-mates on the final climb, could have left him with a bigger deficit to claw back. Still, he would rather be in front.
"It's not so bad but I'd rather be five minutes in front," said Evans. "Tactically it was the best thing they (CSC) could have done, put Sastre away on the front - it would have been worse if he was away with Andy Schleck. But given they had the strength in numbers, it's always going to be three against one."
CSC failed to launch attacks on the climb over the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond on Tuesday's 16th stage, allowing Evans to limit his potential time losses. This time, with Sastre out in front and surging towards victory, Evans could do little but sit with the Schleck brothers and keep an eye on eventual attacks from Menchov.
"A headwind worked to my advantage yesterday (Tuesday) but today obviously, they can sit on the wheel and recover. I could ride, but also I had to be able to cover attacks in the last kilometre. It's not easy to do and close a gap of two minutes with ten of the best bike riders on your wheel ready to attack you for the finish. It's a difficult situation."
Of the top five riders in the race's general classification Evans, and Menchov, would be expected to be top finishers in the race against the clock. But Evans is not making any predictions.
"We'll see on Saturday. This will really become the race of truth," he added.
Menchov, who crucially lost 35 seconds on the 25km downhill section leading to Jausiers on Tuesday, is now 2:39 behind Sastre and 1:05 behind Evans. Russia's two-time Tour of Spain winner admitted he would now likely aim for a podium place. And he said that Evans, despite being a time trial specialist, would not be guaranteed the yellow jersey.
"It's a little bit hard for me, but everything is possible. I'm happy with myself and think I did a good job," said Menchov. "I'm still not too far away from the podium. One minute 34 for Evans? I think it's possible (he can win), he's a specialist. But Carlos will be good as well I'm sure."
Sastre admitted there will be some difficult days ahead. But he simply wants to celebrate his second stage win on the race, following his maiden win in 2003, and his first yellow jersey.
"I want to take things day by day," Sastre said. "Tomorrow I think we'll spend regaining as much energy as possible. In the time trial, against riders like Evans and Menchov, I don't think I have much of a chance. Right now, I don't want to think about 1:34. All I want to do is recuperate ahead of Saturday."
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008