Yellow jersey within reach for Australia's Evans
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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Yellow jersey within reach for Australia's Evans

by Agence France-Presse at 6:21 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Tour de France
by Justin Davis

Australia's Cadel Evans will saddle up as the Tour de France favourite this Saturday with a chance of making history - and settling some scores in the process.

Evans came agonisingly close to winning the yellow jersey in 2007, finishing only 23secs behind Spanish rival Alberto Contador in a race that, some argue, was artificially modified by the presence of Danish climber Michael Rasmussen.

This year Rasmussen and Contador are both absent, Evans with one main rival in Spaniard Alejandro Valverde and a less-fancied handful of other contenders.

Rasmussen became a pariah during last year's Tour when it was revealed, while he was in the race lead, that he had missed a number of anti-doping controls.

The Dane did not fail a doping test but was still thrown out, although not before he had stamped his authority on the race in a way that some, including Evans, believe changed the stakes entirely.

It was Rasmussen's attacks on stage 14, for example, that prompted Contador to follow the Dane and beat him to the finish line at Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees. Evans struggled to follow, and at the end of the stage dropped down a place to third with Contador moving up to second overall.

When Rasmussen finally departed, Contador took the yellow jersey. The Spaniard then secured it for good with his performance in the penultimate stage time trial.

On Wednesday, Rasmussen was handed a two-year ban for missing anti-doping controls before the 2007 race.

This year's 95th edition will also be missing Contador, whose Astana team were not invited because of doping controversies in the 2007 Tour while under different management.

Their absence can only benefit Evans, who in his three previous participations placed eighth (2005), fourth (2006) and second (2007).

Evans also has his entire Silence team, with the exception of sprinter Robbie McEwen, at his disposal and has been boosted by the organisers' decision to scrap the time bonuses that can be picked up at the end of some stages.

But despite Evans starting as favourite, Valverde should prove a formidable rival.

The 28-year-old Spanish ace dominated Evans in two key races this year - the Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic, and the Dauphine Libere stage race - and his team has plenty of Tour experiencec.

In climbing terms, Evans and Valverde are on a virtual par although the Spaniard, after working hard to improve his time trialling, has closed the gap significantly in the race against the clock.

At the Dauphine Libere Valverde won the third stage time trial over 31km, pushing Evans into third place. In the end, the Spaniard won the race and Evans finished second.

"He's improved a lot," Evans said. With the minutest technical details capable of becoming the biggest of problems for most yellow jersey challengers, Evans and Valverde are leaving nothing to chance.

Evans has not been idle, but after working on his own improved time trial position the Australian's yellow jersey bid came dangerously close to being scuppered when he contracted tendonitits in his left knee.

His ride at the Dauphine quelled any fears, and since then the Aussie has been honing his climbing prowess on the Stelvio climb in Italy.

With Valverde and Evans so close on paper, the Australian hinted at the Dauphine that he may have to borrow from the race tactics of Spanish legend Miguel Indurain if he is to achieve his aim.

Indurain, the Tour winner in 1991-1995, was a proficient climber who killed off his rivals by dominating the race's long time trials, of which there are two this year - one stage four (29.5 km) and stage 20 (53km).

"The way I rode the Tour last year was a bit like how Indurain did it. I only took back time in the time trials," Evans said.

"I'd like to be able to take time in the climbs as well, but when you have two of the best climbers in the world working against you, like I did in last year's Tour, it's not always easy. "It's not like I'm scared to attack, it's just that I don't always have the legs."

Even Contador, who recently won the Giro d'Italia by controlling his rivals and performing well in the time trials, believes Evans can succeed him.

"My favourite for the Tour is Cadel Evans, he's a solid rider who can really make time differences count in the time trials," Contador said last week.

For the first time since 1967, the race will begin without a prologue and the first week, instead of featuring flat, sprinter-friendly stages, is peppered with undulating terrain that will be buffered by the unpredictable Brittany winds.

After some medium mountain stages in the Massif Central, the race heads down to the Pyrenees before racing across to the Alps.

Stage 17 of the race, which finishes on the summit of the legendary Alpe d'Huez, is expected to be the race decider.

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