Schleck takes lead as Tour is blown wide open
21 July 2008
PRATO NEVOSO – Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck took hold of the Tour de France yellow jersey from Cadel Evans here on Friday after a thrilling 15th stage in the Alps which blew the race wide open.
Australian Simon Gerrans, of the Credit Agricole team, claimed his maiden win on the race – and the biggest of his career – at the end of the 183km stage from Embrun to here.
However, the big battle on the first of three days in the Alps was going on in Gerrans’ wake. And it has resulted in what is the most open Tour in years.
Five riders finished the day within one minute of Schleck, meaning there should be guaranteed drama when the Tour recommences on Tuesday following Monday’s rest day.
Schleck, the Luxembourg champion, had been almost guaranteed taking the yellow jersey having started just one second behind Evans, and bolstered by a strong CSC team that the Aussie was always going to struggle to outfox.
With his younger brother Andy, and co-team leader Carlos Sastre helping Schleck, Evans was left on his own when Yaroslav Popovych ran out of juice early on the final, 11.1km climb.
Evans did well to limit his losses, but came over the finish line nine seconds behind Schleck, leaving the Luxemburger with a seven-second lead on Austrian Bernhard Kohl.
Evans is now third at 08, 30secs ahead of Russian rival Denis Menchov, who has a one-second advantage on American Christian Vande Velde.
Sastre, Schleck’s team-mate remains in sixth but has reduced his deficit to just 49.
Schleck admitted it was the hard pace-setting work of Andy, followed by some tactical accelerations from Sastre, that helped put Evans and their other rivals into the red.
"It was a very hard last climb, really fast and it was thanks mostly to my brother Andy. His pace put everyone into the red," said Schleck.
"Carlos attacked at the start, then Andy set the tempo and then Carlos attacked again.
"The end result is that Carlos has got back into the yellow jersey race and now I’ve got the yellow jersey. That was the goal this morning, and it shows we can do well on all sorts of terrain, on the flat, in the rain and on the climbs.
"I think it’s superb what we did today."
Menchov, who has been consistently described as a major favourite, provided one of the major incidents of the day when he came skidding down on a bend on the final climb after launching an attack around 4km from the finish.
Menchov got back on his bike to rejoin Sastre, and rebounded in spectacular fashion by finishing 18sec ahead of Schleck.
The Russian’s manager, Erik Breukink, played down the effects of his Rabobank team leader’s setback.
"That is bad luck, but after that he was okay," said Breukink.
"He tried to do everything afterwards, but it always costs you some strength. He lost a bit of time to Sastre, that’s a pity."
Breukink is so far pleased with Menchov, but admits CSC, and stubborn Gerolsteiner rider Kohl, will be hard to shake.
"Menchov is within half a minute, he has to stay healthy over the two days," added the Dutchman.
"(Bjarne) Riis has the strongest team here, three very good climbers. That is what we expected. Kohl is still holding on. It’s not easy to drop him."
As well as losing the yellow jersey, Evans showed chinks in his armour – although his team manager Hendrik Redant has played down the damage.
"I wouldn’t call it too difficult a day for us, it wasn’t a surprise that there were a lot of attacks. That’s normal for a summit finish," said the Belgian.
"All the favourites are bunched together, and Cadel’s within ten seconds of the lead. It’s good for him and it’s good for the Tour. It’s only the beginning (of the race)."
Menchov was not the only rider to crash.
Spaniard Oscar Pereiro, the 2006 champion, ended up in hospital after a dramatic fall which left him with shoulder injuries.
Britain’s David Millar and Vande Velde also came crashing down as the peloton rode around both sides of a roundabout prior to approaching the final climb.
Vande Velde, however, recovered to stay well in contention with the favourites.
"Christian is amazing me more and more every day," said Millar, who admitted it was amazing he escaped with no injuries from his fall.
"I hope to feel better in the coming days, but we’re ready to give every single last drop of energy to help Christian."
[AFP / Expatica]