After losing the Tour de France by a mere 23 seconds last year, Cadel Evans finally donned the yellow jersey at the race's first major summit finish yesterday by an even more heart-stopping margin of just one second.
Evans' tenuous hold on yellow comes after a mere 1,738 kilometres (1,086 miles) and 10 days of racing that have taken the Tour from Brest in Brittany's far west across France to the daunting Hautacam climb, close to the Spanish border. For the Australian to be leading cycling's biggest race by such an impossibly small advantage at this point sounds like a potboiler novel plot dreamt up by a writer who has never been to a bike race, let alone the Tour. But reality has superseded bad fiction in the 2008 race, particularly given that Evans was fighting with a colossal handicap all the way up the final 14.4km (nine miles) Hautacam climb.
In a cliffhanger finale, no sooner had the road steepened than the Luxembourg-born challenger Frank Schleck of the CSC team charged away from the main pack of 30 riders. And Evans could not respond.
Injured on Sunday's stage when he crashed at high speed and ripped skin from the whole of his left side – "The 'road rash' starts at my shoulder and goes all the way down my leg," Evans said later – the Australian was plainly not having a good day.
To say this must have been a frustrating scenario for the Silence-Lotto leader is no small exaggeration. The race leader Kim Kirchen, of the Columbia team, had cracked completely and the yellow jersey was up for grabs. On top of that, the Spaniard Alejandro Valverde had dropped back on the previous climb, the Tourmalet, leaving the road open for the Australian. But those untimely injuries, combined with Schleck's powerful attack, seemed certain to make it impossible for Evans, the overwhelming Tour favourite, to seize the day. But Evans cut his losses and quickly formed a working alliance with the Russian challenger Denis Menchov to try to limit Schleck's advantage.
The two had their work cut out, because ahead the CSC rider had also found some collaborators. Leonardo Piepoli, a doughty veteran who already has mountain stage wins in the Tours of Italy and Spain in his palmares and wanted to round off the collection with a Tour stage victory before he retires, and Piepoli's Saunier Duval team-mate, the Spaniard Juan Jose Cobo, were happy to lend Schleck a hand.
The three worked well together, opening a gap of two minutes on the rest of the field, enough to make Schleck race leader on the road ahead of Evans. But, in yet another twist, 2.5km from the finish Schleck's shoulders began to sway and, within seconds, Piepoli and Cobo had drawn ahead.
While Piepoli's dream of a Tour stage win came true as Cobo generously allowed his team- mate to cross the line first, Schleck's third at 28 seconds left his chances of yellow utterly dependent on the strength of Evans' reaction. And Evans came through, albeit by the minimum possible. The Australian finally crossed the line in eighth place, one minute and 49 seconds down on the Luxembourg rider. But it was still just enough to give him the lead. Given the way he had inched ahead, it was perhaps understandable that a good half-hour after victory Evans still had the yellow Crédit Lyonnais lion which all Tour leaders receive firmly clamped under his arm as if someone was going to steal it at any minute.
"These last few days have been a bit of a roller coaster," he admitted. "I've gone from thinking my Tour was over," – after Sunday's crash – "to taking yellow."
While Evans could finally celebrate his lead, Britain's Mark Cavendish, a double stage winner, had a rough day.
The Manxman finished dead last on the stage, nearly 35 minutes after Piepoli and nursing an injured right elbow from a crash early on. "He's really tired. He and [team-mate] Bernard Eisel, who crashed two days ago, rode up the last climb alone. It was like a little mobile hospital,"
said Cavendish's team manager, Rolf Aldag. "Today's [Tuesday's] rest day can't come too soon for either of them."
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk
Tour de France Stage 10 results
10th stage (156km, Pau to Hautacam): 1 L Piepoli (It) Saunier Duval 4hr 19min 27sec; 2 J J Cobo (Sp) Saunier Duval same time; 3 F Schleck (Lux) Team CSC +28sec; 4 B Kohl (Aut) Gerolsteiner +1min 06sec; 5 V Efimkine (Rus) AG2R +2:05; 6 R Ricco (It) Saunier Duval +2:17; 7 C Sastre (Sp) Team CSC; 8 C Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto; 9 D Menchov (Rus) Rabobank; 10 C Vandevelde (US) Garmin-Chipotle; 11 M Duenas (Sp) Barloworld +2:27; 12 S Goubert (Fr) AG2R +2:49; 13 V Nibali (It) Liquigas +3:40; 14 M Astarloza (Sp) Euskaltel +3:58; 15 K Kirchen (Lux) Columbia +4:19; 16 S Sanchez (Sp) Euskaltel +5:22; 17 T Valjavec (Sloven) AG2R +5:27; 18 D Cunego (It) Lampre +5:51; 19 A Valverde (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne +5:52; 20 L ten Dam (Neth) Rabobank +5:54. Leading overall standings: 1 C Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto 42hr 29min 09sec; 2 F Schleck +1sec; 3 Vandevelde +38; 4 Kohl +46; 5 Menchov +57; 6 Sastre +1min 28sec; 7 Kirchen +1:56; 8 Cobo +2:10; 9 Ricco +2:29; 10 Efimkine +2:32; 11 M Astarloza (Sp) Euskaltel +3:51; 12 V Nibali (It) Liquigas +4:18; 13 L L Sanchez (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne +4:26; 14 Valverde +4:41; 15 Valjavec +5:23. Sprinter standings: 1 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank 131pts; 2 Kirchen 124; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 105; 4 Valverde 96; 5 E Zabel (Ger) Milram 92; 6 M Cavendish (GB) Columbia 86. King of the Mountain standings: 1 Ricco 77pts; 2 D De la Fuente (Sp) Saunier Duval 65; 3 S Lang (Ger) Gerolsteiner 57; 4 B Kohl (Aut) Gerolsteiner 56; 5 F Schleck 46; 6 L Piepoli (It) Saunier Duval 41. Team standings: 1 Saunier Duval 127hr 29min 48sec; 2 Team CSC +4min 40sec; 3 AG2R +9:29; 4 Gerolsteiner +19:49; 5 Caisse d'Epargne +22:34; 6 Rabobank +23:24.Reuse content