Schleck seizes reins from injured Evans

ST JEAN DE MAURIENNE, France, (Reuters) – Andy  Schleck seized the Tour de France reins after joining forces  with defending champion Alberto Contador in a hard, 204.5-km  Alpine stage in which most of the other favourites dropped out of contention.

Australian Cadel Evans, the race leader at the start yesterday, was unable to stay in contact because of a fractured  elbow suffered in a crash in the previous stage on Sunday.

Contador and Schleck, the top two riders in the last Tour,  launched the decisive move together on the first unrated  mountain pass this year, the long and punishing Col de la  Madeleine.

“Today the aim was to drop Contador but it was not possible;  he was too strong,” said Luxembourg’s Schleck after putting on  the first yellow jersey of his career. “But he was unable to  drop me either.   “It’s now obvious that we are above the rest. We’re pretty  equal I think, only he needs to take 41 seconds back from me.”

World champion Evans crossed the line in tears, eight  minutes and eight seconds after stage winner Sandy Casar of  France.

Only then did his BMC team director John Lelangue reveal the  extent of his injury from Sunday’s crash, which also involved  seven-times champion Lance Armstrong.

“We decided to keep it secret and to go on anyway,” Lelangue  told journalists.

Unaware of Evans’s injury, Schleck and Contador launched a  punishing assault 40 kms from the line. Olympic champion Samuel  Sanchez of Spain was the only one to limit the damage and is now  2:45 behind Schleck overall in third place.

As the race reaches the halfway mark, Russia’s Denis Menchov  is 2:59 off the pace and American Levi Leipheimer is 3:59 adrift  while the leaders of most other teams are more than five minutes  behind.

In the last seven kilometres of the Madeleine climb, Schleck  unsuccessfully attacked Spaniard Contador three times. The two  riders were seen chatting shortly before the summit and decided  to join forces against the rest of the field.

“I know what I have to do and what wheel I need to follow  and that’s Andy’s,” Contador said. “It was a good move today  because we took a lot of time away from the others.”

Armstrong, whose hopes of an eighth win were dashed in  Sunday’s crash, said he was feeling much happier after Monday’s  rest day.

“I feel better. I find myself in a position where we try to  get (RadioShack team mate) Levi up as much as possible,” the  American said.

Casar’s stage win was the third of his career. The FDJ rider  outsprinted Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez in the final stretch to  get revenge for last year when the Spaniard beat him in St  Girons. Italy’s Damiano Cunego was third.

The peloton spend a final day in the Alps today for a  179-km ride from Chambery to Gap with only one major climb,  early in the stage.

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