A last-minute attack by Luxem-bourg's Frank Schleck in the Tour de France's first Alpine stage netted the CSC-Saxobank team leader the yellow jersey yesterday – and blew the race wide open.
The one-second advantage of the week-long race leader, Cadel Evans, evaporated when Schleck charged away in the final kilometre at Prato Nevoso ski station in Italy. As the rain teemed down, Schleck knew that the stage win was not an option – that had already gone to the Australian Simon Gerrans, after he outpowered his two rivals from an early break. What mattered, rather, was the chance for a race lead that has been tantalisingly close for the 28-year-old since Evans took yellow in Hautacam last Monday.
Schleck, however, can hardly say his hold on the yellow jersey is much stronger than Evans' had been: his lead is seven seconds on Austria's Bernhard Kohl; Evans is eight seconds back.
With only three decisive stages – two in the high mountains, and one long time trial – left, no fewer than five riders are a minute or less behind Schleck. For so many potential winners to remain so closely grouped together at this point in the race, and for their strength to be so equal, is unprecedented in Tour history.
When Lance Armstrong won seven Tours in a row, his recipe for success was to attack at the foot of the first mountain stage and open up a unbridgeable lead: yesterday proved such days are long gone. Evans' reign in yellow started to unravel when the CSC-Saxo Bank team set down a ferocious pace on the approach to the Prato Nevoso climb. Almost as soon as the road steepened, Andy Schleck – Frank's younger brother – accelerated hard. That stripped the yellow jersey group to a dozen, leaving Evans with only one team-mate – the Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych – for support.
The attacks then rained down on Evans. As Popovych faded and Evans' head sagged further and further over his handlebars, the CSC-Saxo Bank co-leader, Carlos Sastre, and the Russian Denis Menchov piled on the pressure. Menchov almost paid a high price, accelerating so hard round one corner that his bike skidded and he crashed.
Uninjured, the grim-faced Russian picked himself up and rejoined the fray, going clear with Sastre and yet another yellow jersey contender, Kohl. Forced on to the defensive, Evans might have kept the yellow jersey out of Kohl's clutches but the elder Schleck delivered a knock-out blow, inching out of the Australian's group and scraping into the race lead.
The British sprinter Mark Cavendish pulled out yesterday morning, after winning four stages. He will now rest at home for a week before starting his build-up for the Madison at the Beijing Olympics next month.
"Yesterday [Saturday] when I went across the line I knew it was best to stop," Cavendish said. "I saw I was out of contention for the points jersey as well and I was already really tired."
His four stage wins represent a record haul for Great Britain on any major Tour. Even though he will not see Paris, the Manxman's success has fast-tracked him into the realm of the sprinting greats. Yesterday's abandonment was by no means the last chapter of his Tour story.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.ukReuse content