Australian Stuart O’Grady’s joy on what was another thrilling stage of the Tour de France to Alpe d’Huez on Wednesday could, if you’re a Cadel Evans fan, appear misplaced.
But as the final day in the Alps witnessed two Aussies playing separate roles in the yellow jersey battle, O’Grady had little sympathy for his compatriot.
While Evans fought to limit his losses as Carlos Sastre charged up the 13.8km climb towards victory at the summit of Alpe d’Huez, O’Grady was getting excited for his CSC-Saxo Bank teammate.
“I was hearing it (the time gaps) over the radio, it was awesome. It was giving me goosbumps,” O’Grady told AFP after rolling over the finish 58:35 behind Sastre.
Evans, for not the first time, succumbed to the dominance of CSC on a thrilling 17th stage which saw the yellow jersey go from one CSC rider to another. It started with Luxembourg champion Frank Schleck and ended up with Sastre, who left everyone in his wake with his attack at the foot of the final climb. Evans eventually trailed in 2:15 behind Sastre and is now 1:34 behind the Spaniard.
However the Aussie, last year’s runner-up by 23secs to another Spaniard, Alberto Contador, could cause some last-gasp drama on Saturday by securing overall victory in the penultimate stage time trial.
“It’s not so bad but I’d rather be five minutes in front,” said Evans, who appeared upbeat after emerging from the doping control.
It should go right down to the wire, but O’Grady believes Sastre has the tools to deny Evans despite his compatriot’s superior past record in the ‘race of truth’.
“I’m sure he’d (Sastre) rather be a minute and a half ahead than behind (Evans). The main thing is, he’s given everything he had and did a tactic that’s worked perfectly,” he added. “What more can you do? He’s got the jersey, he’s got the stage. It’s a big, big day for the team. Awesome.”
O’Grady had played his role in helping set the pace on the early ramps of the Col de la Croix de Fer climb before letting Fabian Cancellara take over to set an even more punishing pace. The Aussie then went up the last climb at his own rhythm, but listening with delight as he followed Sastre’s progress in his earpiece radio.
After finishing O’Grady admitted that despite CSC’s “big” day, he personally felt under par: “I feel pretty terrible.”
Evans would be forgiven for having nightmares at having to joust with yet another Spanish rival after losing to Contador. The 31-year-old Silence-Lotto leader can nevertheless take heart from past results, including a Commonwealth Games title, in the event. Sastre, so far, has few to speak of.
In the fourth stage time trial over 29.5km, Sastre finished 1:43 behind Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher. Evans was fourth, at just 21.
In normal circumstances, the Aussie would hope to take at least two minutes from Sastre in a 53km race – the distance of Saturday’s 20th stage from Cerilly to Saint-Amand-Montrond.
Even Sastre said: “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.”
Yet Evans’ team manager, Marc Sergeant, is an anxious man.
“Less than a minute’s deficit to Sastre would have been better, but we’re still in contention,” said the Belgian. “If we still have a 1:34 deficit on the morning of the time trial, we could be okay. It’s 50/50.”
Evans said the finale to this year’s race is becoming all too familiar. Ahead of Saturday, he will be hoping for a different outcome.
“Last year it was a bit of a Hollywood ending, in fact it was too original for Hollywood. I have a knack for this at the Tour,” he said. “We’ll see on Saturday. This will really become the race of truth.”
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008