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By John Wilcockson
From virtually every aspect, Carlos Sastre has ridden a perfect Tour de France. As soon as the route for this year’s Tour was announced last October, he said that the race would be decided in the final week, and probably at L’Alpe d’Huez. That’s why he focused his whole season on being at his very best right now, using races as training all season long, and trying to remain anonymous through the first two weeks of the race itself.
Sastre achieved that goal. He placed an anonymous 28th in the first time trial at Cholet, but only 1:16 behind top favorite Cadel Evans; he lost a handful of seconds to Evans in the hilltop finishes at Plumelec and Super-Besse in the first week; and he crossed the line alongside the Australian atop the hardest finish climb in the Pyrénées, at Hautacam. So, coming into the Alps, Sastre was sitting in a comfortable sixth place on GC, 1:28 behind race leader Evans — who had to cope with the pressure of wearing the yellow jersey in the four stressful stages across the South of France.
Despite being behind his teammate Fränk Schleck, Sastre was still considered by his CSC team to be their leader. He was ready for the Alps. Sastre knew that after more than 550km of racing, almost 16 hours in the saddle and a total of 35,000 feet of climbing in three days, virtually everyone would be at their limit by the time they reached L’Alpe d’Huez. The few exceptions, judging by their performances Wednesday, included all of Sastre’s eight teammates (especially Fabian Cancellara, Kurt-Asle Arvesen and the two Schleck brothers) — and that fact clearly played to the little Spanish rider’s advantage.
When Sastre attacked in the first kilometer of the 13.8km climb to the Alpe, the only rival who went with him was Denis Menchov. But Sastre wasn’t going to work with the Russian, who beat him by 1:09 at the Cholet time trial, so he eased off the gas and then jumped a second time. Not only couldn’t Menchov make a second acceleration, he couldn’t even follow the tempo set by the small chase group that formed around Evans.
Sastre, 33, knew his solo move was his last best chance in his life to win the Tour. He rode at an impressive, if not spectacular pace, while his teammates Andy and Fränk Schleck carefully monitored the accelerations behind and controlled the pace of the three other favorites: Evans, Bernhard Kohl and Christian Vande Velde. Evans knew he had to keep Sastre’s lead to about two minutes if he wanted to stand a chance of overtaking him in this Saturday’s crucial time-trial stage, so the feisty Aussie resigned himself to doing most of the pulling.
Evans probably did just enough to give himself an honest shot at winning the Tour. He is the better time trialist, but on Saturday, after nursing his strength for three weeks and likely to be inspired by his yellow jersey, Sastre will be a tenacious opponent.
There is a small chance that the CSC team will try to make use of its collective strength on Thursday’s stage 18 from Bourg d’Oisans to St. Étienne. The opening half of the near-200km stage leaving the Alps will be very fast, and will almost certainly see the development of an early breakaway — even though everyone is tired from the mountains — but the final 50km is very hilly. The Cat. 2 Croix de Montvieux (13.7km at 4.7 percent) culminates 33km from the finish, while the Cat. 4 Sorbiers climb (4.3km at 3.2 percent) crests 8km from the line as part of a tricky run-in through the northern suburbs of St. Étienne.
Expect the riders in the early break to fight out the stage win (there are still a half-dozen teams that have won very little at the Tour, so competition will be hot), but the finale offers some opportunities for CSC to test Silence-Lotto’s Evans (and his much weaker team) with potential attacks from the Schleck brothers, and even an eventual counter-punch from Sastre if Evans is isolated. But the chances are that the whole outcome of the Tour will come down to Saturday’s time trial.
At the start of this Tour, I pinpointed 11 riders likely to finish in the top places in Paris. Two of them (Riccardo Riccò for doping, Stijn Devolder for fatigue) have dropped out, leaving just nine of my favorites. These are their relative positions (along with the two men who have unexpectedly emerged, Kohl and Vande Velde) after 3,000km of racing:
OUR PRE-RACE FAVORITES(after 17 stages)
1. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 74:39min03sec (average speed 40.193 kph)
2. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at 1:24
(3. Bernhard Kohl (AUT), Gerolsteiner at 1:33)
4. Cadel Evans (AUS), Silence-Lotto at 1:34
5. Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank at 2:39
(6. Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Chipotle at 4:41)
7. Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Caisse d’Epargne at 5:35
8. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 5:52
9. Tadej Valjavec (SLO), Ag2r at 8:10
11. Kim Kirchen (LUX), Team Columbia at 8:35
12. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 10:15
14. Damiano Cunego (ITA), Lampre at 12:26