Sastre takes yellow from shoulders of team-mate
TOUR DE FRANCE:A GREAT stage demands a dramatic performance, and at last someone has made the big gesture intended to break the stalemate in the 2008 Tour de France. The leaders in yesterday's 17th stage had barely set foot on the first of the 21 rungs of the Alpe d'Huez when Carlos Sastre jumped out of the bunch.
Head down and pedals whirring, the 33-year-old Madrileno established an advantage that grew over the next 40 minutes until he had secured more than enough of a lead to give him the yellow jersey and, perhaps, just enough to allow him to wear it all the way to the top step of the podium in Paris on Sunday.
Aided by the formidable willingness of his CSC team-mates, Sastre opened a lead of 94 seconds over Cadel Evans, the race favourite.
Evans, the 31-year-old Australian who has yet to win a stage but is a specialist against the clock, will have his big day on Saturday, in a 53km time trial from Cerilly to Saint-Amand-Montrond, in the very centre of France.
Many observers felt a lead of three minutes going into the time trial might have been enough to give Sastre or his team-mate Frank Schleck victory over Evans this weekend, but a margin of 94 seconds leaves ample room for uncertainty.
The elder Schleck, the other CSC rider with hopes of overall victory, began the day in the leader's jersey but seemed content to relinquish it once Sastre had made his move. Again the team worked together with a precision reminiscent of the era of Lance Armstrong's US Postal and Discovery Channel outfits. Stuart O'Grady established the pace at the head of the peloton before handing over to Fabian Cancellara, Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Volodymir Gustov, who worked double shifts to reel in the last remnants of a breakaway at the foot of the final climb.
Stefan Schumacher, the protagonist of Tuesday's long break across the Lombarde and the Bonette-Restefonde passes, repeated the tactic yesterday as the riders set out from Embrun, by the shore of the shimmering Lac de Serre-Ponçon, on a 210km stage that would last just over six hours and encompass five huge climbs, ending with the 1,860-metre Alpe d'Huez, with its notorious 21 hairpins in 13.8 kilometres, its average gradient of 7.9 per cent, its thousands of inebriated campers from Holland, Germany, Denmark, Australia and elsewhere, and its promise of immortality.
Joined by Ruben Perez, a Spanish rider with the Euskaltel-Euskadi team; Peter Velits, a Slovak with Milram; and Remy di Gregorio, a Frenchman with Française des Jeux, Schumacher stretched the group's lead over the peloton to around seven minutes by the time they headed up the Croix de Fer, but it was never enough to hold their pursuers.
Perez was the first to crack, followed by Di Gregorio, before Schumacher himself succumbed to his efforts. Velits, the under-23 world champion, hung on until he was joined by Jerome Pineau, a French rider with Bouygues Telecom, who had jumped across from the peloton and did his best to help his companion resist the effects of a headwind as the duo pounded through the valley of the Romande and along the long, flat road towards Bourg d'Oisans.
The wind also affected the plans of the CSC squad as they prepared to wreak havoc on the hopes of Evans and Denis Menchov, the two main rivals to Sastre and Schleck in the general classification. At the head of a group of around 30 riders, they waited until Sastre had accelerated away before Schleck and his younger brother Andy began their attempts to break Evans's dogged rhythm by putting in short sprints that demanded a response before easing up and allowing the group to reform.
Menchov dropped back early in the climb but recovered to fight his way back to the group, in which Alejandro Valverde, Bernhard Kohl and Vladimir Efimkin, a Russian with the AG2R team, were also looking ambitious to join the distant Sastre on the podium.
Whenever one of them jumped, however, Andy Schleck - wearing the white jersey of the best young rider - would move smoothly forward to neutralise him with a superlative exhibition of man-marking.
But a monster of a stage, held under blue skies in temperatures that reached the realms of the infernal as the strategic battle reached its boiling climax, and with massive crowds at the top of each climb, had not delivered the anticipated knock-out blow.
And on Saturday, following two relatively flat stages, it will be Evans's turn to show that he can seize the initiative.