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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Supreme display fires Evans to the brink of Tour glory

Sometimes awkward Australian overcome by his emotions, writes Richard WilliamsAustralia will have its first winner of the Tour de France after Cadel Evans took the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck in yesterday's 42.5km time trial in the shadow of the Chartreuse mountains, and there was nothing close about it.

Starting the day 57 seconds behind the younger of the two Luxembourg brothers, Evans completed the ride in a time two and a half minutes faster than his rival, and the former mountain bike champion needs only to stay upright on today's stage from Creteil to Paris to make his dreams come true.

The 34-year-old Evans is an emotional man beneath his often awkward, sometimes closed facade, and he wept in the arms of his colleagues in the Swiss-American BMC team as he prepared to accept the maillot jaune for the first time in this year's race.

He had held it briefly in 2008 and 2010, but this time one day in yellow will be enough to make him the fourth Anglophone winner in 98 years of the race, following two Americans, Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, and an Irishman, Stephen Roche.

Barring accidents, he will be followed on to the podium by Mark Cavendish, who starts today in the green jersey of the points leader, Samuel Sanchez, the king of the mountains, and Pierre Rolland, the best young rider.

It is three decades since the 22-year-old Phil Anderson, born in London but brought up in Melbourne, took the chance of moving to Europe and joining an amateur club outside Paris. A curiosity at first, he quickly turned professional and, in 1981, he became the first rider from outside Europe to lead the Tour.

Since then half a dozen Australian riders have won stages, most of them as sprinters, but Evans is the first since the pioneer to make himself a contender for overall victory. Anderson now leads parties of amateur cyclists to the race each year, and was celebrating his compatriot's success by the roadside yesterday.

Evans is well known to be a more effective rider against the clock than either of the Schlecks, but there was a surprise when Andy could post a time only three seconds faster than his older brother, Frank, who is usually much the less impressive of the two in time trials. Perhaps weakened by his efforts in the Alps, the 26-year-old little brother was defeated by a course which included 1,000ft of climbing and a tricky descent.

So his courageous ride on Thursday, when he attacked his rivals and dominated the long stage across the Col d'Agnel and the Col d'Izoard to the summit of the Galibier, availed him nothing. For the third year in a row he will stand on the podium in the Champs-Elysees as the runner-up, wondering again whether it is in his destiny to win this race and looking up at a man who was a second-place finisher in 2007 and 2008.

Perhaps the lesson to be learnt is that one attack is seldom enough.

Schleck is surely talented enough to base his campaign on a more sustained offensive, particularly given the help of his brother and a posse of talented colleagues in their newly formed Leopard Trek team. To leave it until the 18th stage to abandon the tentative short attacks that had become his trademark was surely a piece of poor strategic planning.

Yesterday's preparations by the Schlecks -- a training lap in the morning, followed by a trip in the team car to follow the early run of Fabian Cancellara, their specialist in the race against the clock -- were in vain. Nor was there a dividend from the efforts Andy Schleck has put into his time-trialling, including sessions in a San Diego wind tunnel and special stretching exercises to improve the aerodynamic efficiency of his position on the bike.

Grenoble awoke to wet roads with the probability of improvement later. Cancellara, the world and Olympic time trial champion, had expended so much energy in support of the Schlecks during the first week of the race that a low placing in the overall standings condemned him to a start time before noon. On the highest part of the course it was raining enough to make the tight, steep descent from the village of Saint-Martin-d'Uriage particularly treacherous. Although Cancellara's time easily outshone those of the other early starters, it was eclipsed soon after the sun came out to dry the roads. His example was therefore of limited value to the Schlecks, who enjoyed greatly improved conditions when they and the other leading riders left the start line just over four hours later.

Richie Porte, Saxo Bank's Tasmanian rider, was the first to push Cancellara down the standings. Then came Thomas De Gendt, the Belgian with Vacansoleil, who clipped a second off Porte's time.

But it was Tony Martin, Cavendish's colleague in the HTC-Highroad team, who posted a time more than a minute faster than any other rider -- except Evans, crouching down on his streamlined bike, pounding the pedals to produce a phenomenal ride that left him a mere seven seconds short of the German's time.

And when he heard that Australia's prime minister had declared a public holiday in his honour, he wept again.


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