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Sastre takes 17th stage of Tour, claims overall lead

7/23/2008

ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- The mountains have proved that Cadel Evans isn't the fastest man uphill, but the Australian may have done just enough to win the Tour de France.

Carlos Sastre of Spain did all he could to gain time on Evans by winning Wednesday's 17th stage and taking the yellow jersey off his CSC teammate, Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, in the hardest Alpine ride this year.

With the toughest mountain stages over and a final time trial awaiting Saturday, the podium outlook is taking shape in what until now had been one of the closest Tours in years -- with seven different riders having worn the yellow jersey.

Sastre beat other title contenders by at least two minutes in the 130.8-mile ride from Embrun to L'Alpe d'Huez. Overall, he leads Schleck by 1 minute, 24 seconds, and Bernhard Kohl of Germany by 1:33. The three-week race ends on Sunday.

While Evans is fourth, 1:34 back, he is the best time trial rider in that bunch, and his rivals knew they needed to get a big jump on him in the climbs. And Evans wasn't shaken when it counted.

"I suffered a lot on the way to the summit, but I take great pleasure in capturing the jersey," Sastre said through a translator. "A pure climber has to take advantage of his opportunities, and this was mine."

The strong position of Evans points more to cautious and canny riding, despite the CSC-led attacks on him during three Alpine stages. At times the Danish squad had to fight headwinds.

Asked if he thinks he can win, Sastre said: "I don't know. I don't want to think about that now."

Two mostly flat stages before Saturday aren't likely to influence the leading bunch. Thursday's stage is a 122.1-mile ride through medium mountains from Bourg-d'Oisans to Saint-Etienne.

Evans, the 31-year-old Silence Lotto team leader who was second last year, is perhaps the man to beat -- barring bad weather or a mishap. For him, being a complete rider matters most, through the flats and in the time trials as well as in the mountains.

Saturday's time trial -- the next-to-last stage before the race ends in Paris -- is likely to determine the winner. Riders will set off one by one along 32.9 miles from Cerilly to Saint-Amand-Montrond.

When it comes to time trials, past performance is often a good indicator. The race against the clock Saturday is about the same distance and layout as two in last year's Tour.

In the first one of those, in Albi, Evans was second behind Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov, who was later kicked out after testing positive for a blood transfusion. Sastre was 2:47 slower than the Australian. In the second, from Cognac to Angouleme, Evans was again second, behind Levi Leipheimer of the United States, and 2:33 faster than Sastre. Kohl and Schleck were even further back each time.

In the first time trial this year -- Stage 4 in and around Cholet -- Evans was fourth, 27 seconds behind stage winner Stefan Schumacher of Germany. Sastre was 28th, 1:43 back.

Among strong time trial riders still in contention for the podium, Denis Menchov of Russia is fifth, 2:39 behind Sastre, and Christian Vande Velde of the United States is sixth, 4:41 back.

Sastre is no slouch: he's placed in the top 10 five times at the Tour, and won a mountain stage in 2003. The 33-year-old Spaniard is riding in his eighth Tour, and this is his first yellow jersey.

"It's a dream come true," he said.

The title contenders played it safe and didn't attack on the first two climbs up the Galibier and Croix de Fer passes. Along with the Alpe d'Huez, they amounted to nearly 40 miles of ascents so hard that they are beyond classification.

CSC was dominant up the first two climbs, leading the group around the race leader that split ahead of the main pack. By the foot of the Alpe d'Huez, Schleck had five teammates escorting him. Then Sastre went ahead.

"I had to take the risk of attacking from the beginning" of that climb, Sastre said, adding that he knew he needed to get a time cushion against Evans and Menchov to have a shot at the title.

Evans, who was in the group of other title hopefuls, said he didn't stand much chance of catching Sastre -- even if he did lead that group up the climb for much of the last few miles.

"When you have the 10 best bike riders in the world behind your wheel and you have a 2-minute gap to close on one of the best climbers in the world, it's not any situation to be in," Evans said.

But the situation looks better for him from here on out.

"The time trial is the race of truth and whoever has the legs will win," Evans said.