Sastre hangs onto lead for likely Tour win
SAINT-AMAND-MONTROND, France -- Carlos Sastre handled his latest test, and is one step from the Tour de France title.
The 33-year-old Spaniard all but locked up victory by holding off Cadel Evans of Australia and other contenders in a decisive time trial in Stage 20 on Saturday -- a day before cycling's showcase event ends in Paris.
Worn down by an onslaught from Sastre's powerful CSC team during the three-week race, Evans couldn't muster the leg power he needed to erase a 1 minute, 34 second deficit, and was caught off guard by the Spaniard's skill.
Overall, after more than 84 hours of racing since the July 5 start in western Brest, Sastre leads Evans by 1 minute, 5 seconds, while Bernhard Kohl of Austria is third, 1:20 behind.
By the math of the Tour, that's close -- but just enough for the soft-spoken Spanish veteran to take home the yellow jersey on Sunday.
"This is the dream of my life that's become a reality now," said Sastre, who finished in the top 10 in five of his previous seven Tour appearances. "I was feeling better and better and was in top form at the end of this week."
Sunday's finale -- an 88.9-mile ride from Etampes to the Champs-Elysees -- is likely to be a ride of honor that won't change the overall standings. In the Tour's etiquette, attacks on the leader are frowned upon in the last stage and any attempts at a breakaway by a rival are easy to counter on the flat course anyway.
Expect CSC to protect Sastre hawkishly on Sunday, and keep him out of trouble -- like a crash, which looms as the only imaginable threat to his hold on the jersey.
In the Spanish village of El Barraco, northwest of Madrid, where Sastre lives, hundreds of fans watching the race on a giant screen TV cheered wildly as he crossed the finish line -- some jumping and hugging each other in joy.
Sastre made the sign of the cross, kissed his fingers and shook them skyward as he crossed the line. He credited his teammates, who sheltered him from the wind in the stages after he took the jersey in the last and most punishing Alpine ride Tuesday. That helped him save energy for the time trial.
"On the climbs, CSC were so strong. It comes down to they have two or three times the budget we do, they can straight away buy much better quality riders," said Evans, the Silence Lotto team leader.
"Strength in numbers, it was no surprise," he said. "But Sastre's ride in the time trial today for me was a real surprise."
Kohl's Gerolsteiner teammate Stefan Schumacher of Germany won the time trial, a 32.9-mile race against the clock in central France from Cerilly to Saint-Amand-Montrond -- for his second stage win this year.
Kohl, who began 1:33 back of Sastre, gave a standout performance to retain third place overall. He's better known as a solid climber, having already locked up the polka-dot jersey given to the Tour's best mountain man.
The Austrian deprived a podium spot from Denis Menchov of Russia and Christian Vande Velde of the United States, who were each faster than Kohl, Sastre and Evans on Saturday -- but had too big a deficit before the stage.
This is the second straight year that the Tour has seen one of its tightest finishes, with the lead up for grabs going into the final time trial -- giving some much-needed sporting drama to an event that has been dogged by doping scandals for several years.
Three cyclists, including Italian star Riccardo Ricco, were kicked out of the race during the first two weeks. Sastre, however, insisted his success has come through hard work and sacrifice, saying unequivocally: "I'm clean."
"There have been cheaters in the past, and there always will be," he said. "But there are people who work silently, with honesty, and who are outside of all these controversies."
Sastre is poised to become the third Spaniard in a row to win cycling's premier race. Alberto Contador won last year and Oscar Pereiro inherited the 2006 title that Floyd Landis of the United States lost in a doping scandal.
Evans was second last year, 23 seconds behind Contador.
In the stage, Schumacher clocked 1 hour, 3 minutes, 50 seconds, trailed by CSC rider Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, 21 seconds back. Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg was third, 1:01 behind. Sastre was 12th, 2:34 back.
Evans had been seen as a favorite: He placed second in two Tour time trials last year that were about the same length. But on Saturday, he finished seventh, 2:05 behind the German.
"I will be back next year," said Evans, 31. "I think I have three or four good Tours left in me."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press