Cadel Evans went from near disaster to pole position in the battle to win the Tour yesterday as the Australian was dropped on the first climb of the Tour's last Alpine stage but bounced back so hard he is now poised to secure victory.
Evans did not win the stage after Pierre Rolland left behind the strongest rider of the day, Spain's Alberto Contador, to take France's first win on the mythical Alpe d'Huez in 25 years, nor was Evans able to prevent arch-rival Andy Schleck from taking over the yellow jersey after Thomas Voeckler, following a stubborn 10-day defence, finally threw in the towel.
However, thanks to his astounding resilience, Evans has now moved up to third overall, with just 57 seconds to regain on Andy Schleck overall in today's 42.5km time trial.
Given Schleck's major deficiencies in the race against the clock, the BMC rider should – on paper – easily overtake the Luxemburger to claim Australia's first ever victory in the Tour.
Evans, rightly, preached caution yesterday, given that he lost the 2007 and 2008 Tours in the final time trial after seemingly being poised to pounce after the last mountain stage – in 2008, in fact, he finished second after failing to outstrip Andy Schleck's old team-mate, Carlos Sastre, who had won on Alpe d'Huez.
However, given Evans' extraordinary defence of his overall position yesterday, there can be no doubting that the former mountain biker from Canberra at the very least has deep resources to draw on to fight for his first Grand Tour victory.
It could have ended so badly for Evans, too, after violent acceleration by triple Tour winner Contador – stung by his disastrous defeat on Thursday – at no less than 90km from the finish on the first ascent of the day, the Telegraphe, shook the race up completely.
While Voeckler was dropped, surprisingly Evans looked to be in even worse trouble, losing almost two minutes on Contador and Andy Schleck in less than a couple of kilometres.
However, rather than physical problems, Evans later explained that it had been technical difficulties with his bike, and after a phenomenal chase over the Galibier, he finally regained contact with Contador and Schleck on the Alpe d'Huez.
Contador then blasted off again with 10km to go, but the Spaniard had expended so much energy with his long-distance attack that he could not open a huge gap – although his move spelt curtains for Voeckler. Caught by Spain's Samuel Sanchez and Rolland near the summit, Contador failed to respond after Rolland powered away, but even if he will not take a fourth Tour, the Saxo Bank rider's memorable mountain attacks yesterday allowed him to finish the race with his head held high.
Behind, the Schlecks failed to shake off Evans, and that could well cost them dear in today's time trial – although Andy was, as usual, optimistic about his chances. "I've got a minute's advantage," Schleck said, "I'm confident I'll keep it all the way to Paris."
If the yellow jersey is still very much undecided, the green jersey competition is now effectively sewn up for Mark Cavendish and barring last-minute disaster he should be able to ride into Paris as Britain's first winner of the classification.
Dropped on the first climb of the day, Cavendish finished in an 80-strong group less than 30 seconds outside the time limit on the stage.
But despite being docked 20 points, as happened after Thursday's Alpine stage, crucially yesterday the same punishment was meted out for his closest rival Jose Joaquin Rojas, also in the same bunch. As a result, Cavendish remains in the lead. "It's a real relief, it's as if the Tour is over," Cavendish said. "I will roll through tomorrow's stage and then see what happens Sunday." If the last two years are anything to go by, that will be a win in Paris for the Manxman. But this time, in green.
What's at stake this weekend?
The race for the leader's jersey will be decided today in what is likely to be a straight shoot-out between leader Andy Schleck and Australian Cadel Evans, who sits in third. The latter is in the stronger position, taking into account Schleck's poor record in racing against the clock.
Britain's Mark Cavendish holds a 15-point advantage over Spaniard Jose Rojas and is favoured to secure the jersey tomorrow, having survived the docking of 20 points both yesterday and on Thursday.
King of the mountains
Spaniard Samuel Sanchez secured the polka-dot jersey after finishing second in yesterday's 19th stage.
Young rider's classification
Frenchman Pierre Rolland's first stage victory yesterday put him top of the standings, 93 seconds ahead of Estonia's Rein Taaramae, followed by Jérôme Coppel and Arnold Jeannesson.
Stage 19 (Modane - Alpe-d'Huez, 109km):
1 P Rolland (Fr) Team Europcar 3hr 13min 25sec
2 S Sanchez Gonzalez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 14sec
3 A Contador Velasco (Sp) Saxo Bank Sungard at 23 sec
4 P Velits (Slovak) HTC-Highroad at 57sec
5 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team
6 T De Gendt (Bel) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team
7 D Cunego (It) Lampre - ISD
8 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
9 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek all at same time
10 R Hesjedal (Can) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 1min 15sec
44 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling 9min 47sec
98 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 25min 27sec
108 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling
167 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo both at same time
1 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 82hr 48min 43sec
2 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 53sec
3 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 57sec
4 T Voeckler (Fr) Team Europcar at 2min 10sec
5 D Cunego (It) Lampre - ISD at 3min 31sec
6 A Contador Velasco (Sp) Saxo Bank Sungard at 3min 55sec
7 S Sanchez Gonzalez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4min 22sec
8 I Basso (It) Liquigas-Cannondale at 4min 40sec
9 T Danielson (US) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 7min 11sec
10 P Rolland (Fr) Team Europcar at 8min 57sec
31 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 57min 28sec
76 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 2hr 11min 44sec
128 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 3hr 7min 34sec
136 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 3hr 11min 57sec