GRENOBLE, France, (Reuters) – Cadel Evans was only a short 95 km ride away from becoming the first Australian winner of the Tour de France after he outclassed the Schleck brothers in the penultimate stage time trial yesterday.
Runner-up in 2007 and 2008, Evans left nothing to chance this time round and the 34-year-old is on the verge of becoming the oldest champion since World War II of the most famous cycling race.
The former mountain bike World Cup winner had checked out yesterday’s 42.5-km course on four previous occasions and his foresight paid off. Whereas Luxembourg’s Frank and Andy Schleck only caught their first glimpse of the tricky, hilly route yesterday morning, Evans capitalised on his knowledge to snatch the yellow jersey off Andy’s back.
The Schlecks, who were first and second overall after the Alps, were never in contention in Grenoble and will have to settle for the honour placings when the race reaches Paris after the 95-km final stage, which is traditionally nothing more than a lap of honour on the Champs-Elysees.
After finishing two minutes, 31 seconds behind Evans in the time trial, Andy Schleck was condemned to the runner-up spot for a third successive year, 1:34 behind Evans.
Frank, his older brother, will finish on the Tour podium for the first time after two fifth places, 2:30 off the pace.
The Tour itinerary, which featured several punishing mountain stages and only one individual time trial, appeared to favour climbing specialists such as the Luxembourg pair but their skills against the clock were far too limited on the day that mattered.
Evans, who had discovered the course on the Criterium du Dauphine in June, finished second in the stage, seven seconds behind
Martin was only five seconds slower than a month ago when he won the Dauphine timed effort.
But the day belonged to Evans, undoubtedly the strongest man from the start of the Tour in Vendee three weeks ago to the finish, 3,400 kilometres later.
The Australian won the most difficult stage of the first week in Mur de Bretagne and avoided seizing the Tour lead too early, staying for days one second behind the yellow jersey.
In the mountains, Evans stayed true to his own tactics and refused to panic when Andy Schleck or three-times champion Alberto Contador attacked.
Consistency, power and a nerveless attitude propelled Evans to victory and silenced those critics who had often slammed him for his lack of aggression.
“I’ve worked so hard for so long with this event in mind. Until these 42.5 kilometres. I just can’t believe what’s happening to me,” said the tearful 2009 world champion, who had the yellow jersey on his back at last.
“It’s exactly 20 years ago that I saw the Tour de France for the first time on TV. I grew with this objective in mind.
“Everything I do, I do it for cycling which I love and for those who believed in me, for my first coach Damian Grundy, for Aldo Sassi, my team mates and those who supported me for the last 20 years.”
It was a long wait for Evans, from his debut as a BMX and mountain-bike rider trained by Grundy in Australia to his apprenticeship as a road cyclist under Italian coach Sassi, who died last year from a brain tumour.
It could also be a long wait for Andy Schleck, who humbly conceded defeat: “I’m proud of finishing second. I have no hard feelings. After all, I’m only 26. I’ll come back on the Tour to win it,” he said.
Other distinctive jerseys were decided in Grenoble. France’s Pierre Rolland, 24, secured the best young rider’s white jersey.
Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain was already certain to take the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey to the Champs-Elysees.
Only the points classification green jersey remains at stake, with Briton Mark Cavendish the favourite to win it at last.
One man will finish the Tour empty-handed — defending champion Contador will not be on the podium for the first time on a big Tour since 2007.
Third in the Grenoble stage, he will finish fifth overall, 3:57 behind Evans.