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Tour de France Cycling News, July 24, 2008

Edited by Sue George and Laura Weislo

Sastre living in the moment

By Gregor Brown in Alpe d'Huez

Carlos Sastre dons his first ever yellow jersey.
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

It's been a long time coming, but Spaniard Carlos Sastre has finally lived up to his promise as a Grand Tour contender and taken the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. His attack at the base of the Alpe d'Huez recalled his only other Tour stage win, which came in 2003 on the Plateau de Bonascre. This year's victory salute was more befitting of a team leader, and rather than put his baby's pacifier in his mouth, Sastre instead pumped his fist in the air in an uncharacteristically aggressive gesture.

The Spaniard's aggression was entirely necessary, as he will need every second he gained on Wednesday's stage if he wants to keep his lead through the time trial on Saturday. It has been Sastre's relatively weak time trial performances which have kept him off of the top of the Grand Tour podiums.

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In 2006, he was only 12 seconds from yellow before the final time trial, but said goodbye to any hope winning the Tour in the 57 kilometre final time trial, by losing more than two minutes to eventual winner Oscar Pereiro. He would go on to take the final podium spot, but only after Floyd Landis was disqualified for doping.

Sastre put an important 2'15" into Australian Cadel Evans with his ride up Alpe d'Huez, but it was his CSC-Saxo Bank squad which set the stage for his performance with admittedly predictable but effective tactics. "I guess it's no secret, but we will be implementing a similar plan to what we have done on each mountain stage so far. It is not really rocket science. We have the strongest team and we have to use our strengths," said directeur sportif Scott Sunderland before the Alps.

Just as they have done since the Pyrénées, the Danish team led the peloton over the Col du Galibier and the Col de la Croix de Fer in the 210.5-kilometre day, and then surged into the base of the 13.8-kilometre Alpe d'Huez with six men and Fränk Schleck's seven-second lead in the overall well protected. Following the last surge by CSC's Fabian Cancellara, Sastre played the perfect tactical card and launched at the base of the climb – the favourites did not see him again.

"I decided to attack from the start because everyone was tired from the CSC efforts on the Col de la Croix de Fer. I took off from the start to get as much time as possible," said Sastre. "I knew I could do better at my own pace instead of constant attacks. It was better early – I could also surprise them by going as early as possible."

Heading into the day 41 seconds down on rival Cadel Evans, Sastre knew he could not go into the final time trial on Saturday at a deficit, and indeed would need several minutes on Evans to keep his dreams of winning the Tour alive.

Despite being weaker against the clock than the likes of Evans and Rabobank's Denis Menchov, Sastre placed the best in the stage four time trial in Cholet of the CSC-Saxo Bank leaders, clearly demonstrating that he's been working on his skills against the clock.

Yet pundits criticized CSC for not creating more pressure earlier on in the day, with most believing the team would need to attack early to gain time on Evans. However, the race was status quo over the first two hors catégorie climbs and left CSC little space for time gains up the Alpe d'Huez.

Read the complete feature.

Evans down, but not out of Tour

By Daniel Benson and Gregor Brown in Alpe d'Huez

Evans had to dig deep
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) may not have stamped his authority on Wednesday's stage 17 and in fact, he may have moved further away from an overall victory. However his Team Manager Marc Sergeant still believes that Evans is the number one favourite for the final yellow jersey in Paris despite the onslaught from Team CSC-Saxo Bank and the time lost to stage winner and new maillot jaune Carlos Sastre.

Evans and his Belgian team leader were willing to admit that Team CSC was not only the strongest team, but that it had played a strong tactical hand in the final mountain test.

"I think tactically it was the best thing they could have done – to put Sastre away," Evans said. "The most dangerous thing was for Sastre to be clear, it would have been worse if he was away with Andy Schleck. All things considered, it was only Sastre who could get away from us and when they have such strength in numbers it is always three against one for me."

Despite some early work from Mario Aerts, Evans was isolated against the three CSC riders, who also put the fear into the rest of the favourites. "They all sat on," Evans said of the final climb. "It was a headwind, and the headwind probably worked in my advantage yesterday, but today they could obviously sit on the wheel and recover.

"You know, I can ride but I also have to be able to cover attacks in the last kilometres. It is not easy to do – to close the gap of two minutes with ten of the best bike riders on your wheel and ready to attack. It is a difficult situation."

"Most of Cadel's rivals did nothing today," said Sergeant, "but the big winner is Carlos Sastre as he has 1'34" on Cadel now," he said. With four stages still to go, though, he was adamant that the race was far from over; even pointing to the next two stages as possible places to gain or lose time.

"There are two more difficult stages to come. I think we'll see more attacking before the time trial, for sure. A lot of riders will still want to win stages but the overall contenders will still be very nervous."

It is likely that the general classification will be the same heading into Saturday's 53-kilometre time trial, setting up a bit of a déjà vu for Evans. Last year, he began the final time trial 1'50" down on Alberto Contador, and put in a brilliant effort but still fell 23 seconds short of taking the overall victory. That same day, one Carlos Sastre was 2'33" slower than Evans on a 55.5 kilometre course.

Seargeant still backed his man as the favourite to win. "I still think that Cadel will win, but I don't think you can underestimate Carlos Sastre. He can be very strong, but we have a good chance if it stays at 1'34."

Evans was a bit more reserved in his reply. "1'34" behind for time trial? Yeah, it is not so bad, but I would rather be five minutes in front," he said with a worried look on his face.

One thing is for certain and that is that nothing is yet certain in the quest for the yellow jersey.

Menchov still hopeful

By Hedwig Kröner in L'Alpe d'Huez

Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

During the rest day in Cuneo, Italy, Rabobank leader Denis Menchov (Rabobank) felt very confident about his general classification aim to win the Tour de France. At the time, he was only 30 seconds back on Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), and Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank) was 11 seconds behind him.

But one day later, the Russian got dropped on the final descent to Jausiers, lost another 35 seconds on Evans and got passed by Sastre on GC. After the last, epic mountain stage to L'Alpe d'Huez on Wednesday won impressively by Sastre, Menchov's overall deficit to the Spanish Sastre was 2'39, with the Australian Evans 1'05 ahead of him.

With Sastre rated a less gifted time trialist than both Menchov and Evans, speculation is now open as to his chances of still reaching the highest podium spot on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, four days from now. The Russian, back to his mysterious ways, did not reveal any of his thoughts on this on the finish line in L'Alpe d'Huez. "Anything is possible because Evans is a time trial specialist," he said. "However, Carlos is also good. We will see, patience."

Menchov felt good throughout the day, with the race made fast and hard by team CSC-Saxo Bank, preparing the road for their biggest coup yet in this Tour de France. Everything was to be decided in the last 21 slopes up to the famous ski station.

"I wanted to attack early in the climb, just like Sastre, actually," said Menchov, who spent a few kilometres chasing back up to the rest of the favourites after Sastre's attack made him blow up. "He left before me, and I had to follow. But then, maybe also because of the pace driven by CSC all day, I exploded. But I held my rhythm and I recovered, fortunately, and came back."

Those at Rabobank see Menchov's remaining form in this third week of racing as a positive sign. Harold Knebel, the team's manager, insisted, "For him to come back like he did gives us hope. We still believe in a possible Tour victory."

Vande Velde rides strong after tough day

By Daniel Benson in Alpe d'Huez

Vande Velde tried to attack
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)
After his bête noir yesterday, Christian Vande Velde was back in contention on the final day of racing in the Alpine mountains. The 32 year-old American was among a select group of favourites containing Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Carlos Sastre (Team CSC - Saxo Bank), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank (Team CSC - Saxo Bank), as the race reached the final climb of L'Alpe d'Huez.

Each rider took turns attacking the others in the yellow jersey group before Evans assumed control of the pursuit of Sastre on the final slopes of the mythical climb.

"I handled things quite well, and I tried with a dig at the end. It didn't quite work out though, but I'm happy with how things went today. Especially after yesterday," said Vande Velde. With the all the main contenders willing to play a game of cat-and-mouse as they took turns attacking, he felt that he missed a chance to put time into a contender.

"(Denis) Menchov (Rabobank) was out the back, and it was a lost opportunity for the rest of us. He got back on, but we could have dropped him and put him out of the picture before the time trial." However despite this lapse, after what was arguably his finest day in the mountains in this year's race, Vande Velde said he will be content with a scenario in which the final Tour de France podium will be decided on Saturday's stage 20 by the 53km ride against the clock.

Vande Velde wouldn't commit to a pick for the overall. "Carlos isn't a horrible time trialist. He's a very good time trialist. Everyone has this perception that if you're not in the top three then you can't time trial but he's good. It's Cadel's race to lose."

As he moved away from the surrounding press toward the seclusion of his team bus, he summed up his own state of mind and chances perfectly. "I was so down yesterday, I really was, but I wasn't going to throw everything away, not having trained so hard to be in this position."

Schumacher puts in another day at the front

By Daniel Benson in Alpe d'Huez

Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

A day in the Alps at the 2008 Tour de France wouldn't be the same without a long-distance break by Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner). For the second day in a row the former yellow jersey-wearing stage winner chased down a select group of Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux) and Peter Velits (Team Milram) at 15km to make the day's early break. The four worked tirelessly and by the foot of the Galibier, the peloton's deficit was 5'45, with Schumacher claiming the coveted "Souvenir Henri Desgrande" at the top of the col.

However, on the next ascent, the Col de la Croix, the German's strength began to sap and he was quickly dropped and caught. "I'd taken too much liquid on board during the climb and I kept on throwing up," he said after the stage.

As CSC-Saxo Bank-led peloton started to reel him in and his companions surged on ahead, Schumacher was quickly swallowed up and spat out the back, forcing him to chase on the descent before Alpe d'Huez. Unfortunately, this effort was beyond him, and he finished 43rd, 18'52 down on stage winner Carlos Sastre (CSC - Saxo Bank).

"It was important that we defended the mountains jersey in case guys like Voekler and Chavanel tried to get away. It's always good to have someone in the front group too as it's always easier to drop back instead of chase," he said. "However one moment I was feeling really good, and the next, my batteries were almost empty. I would have liked to get back on and help Berni [Bernhard Kohl], but I had nothing left”

After his exploits in the last two stages, Schumacher will now try to recover before his last objective: the time trial. Having won the race's first and only test against the clock he'll be marked out as a contender for another win. "I'll try and recover for a few days before the time trial. Then I'll be off to Beijing for the Olympic time trial there."

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Stage video highlights and podcasts

Just can't get enough of the Tour? Well fear not because Cyclingnews has expanded its coverage once again this year to bring you video highlights of every stage plus daily podcasts courtesy of Bikeradar.com and Procycling magazine.

Our video comes directly from Tour de France owners Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), and will be online shortly after the finish of each stage. We've also got highlights from classic Tours of the past so click here to see the full archive.

Check out the podcasts page in our Tour de France section for a full round-up of news and views from the Tour.

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