Barring mishap, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing will tomorrow ride into Paris in yellow to win the Tour de France after comprehensively beating the overnight leader, Leopard Trek's Andy Schleck, in the Stage 20 individual time trial in Grenoble. Tony Martin of HTC-Highroad went fastest today to clinch the stage, but all eyes were on the last few riders on the course to see who would triumph in what has been a gripping battle over the past few weeks for the maillot jaune. Evans put in a storming ride to finish second, just 7 seconds down on Martin, obliterating the lead that Schleck had held at the start of the day.
Evans, who turned 34 on St Valentine’s Day, is set to become the third oldest winner of the Tour de France, with Henri Pelissier one month older when he won in 1923, with the Belgian rider Firmin Lambot aged 36 when he had won 12 months earlier. Lance Armstrong was still three months short of his 34th birthday when he won his seventh and final Tour de France in 2005.
The BMC Racing rider, sixth in the individual time trial in last month’s Criterium du Dauphiné and the strongest time trial rider among those occupying the podium positions this morning, had began as favourite to take the maillot jaune this evening.
Last time he wore it, on Stage 8 of last year’s race, he had collapsed in tears into the arms of team mate Mauro Santambrogio after struggling through the stage with what was later revealed to be a fractured elbow and surrendering the lead to none other than Schleck.
This evening, however, the tears that welled in his eyes on the podium were ones of joy, and interviewed after the presentation, his first thought was for his coach Aldo Sassi, who died of a brain tumour last December, and who had told Evans that he had what it took to win the Tour de France.
The Australian, who stands to become the first rider from the Southern Hemisphere to win cycling's biggest race, had needed to pull back 57 seconds on Andy Schleck, and was just 4 seconds behind the latter’s older brother, Frank.
In apparent contravention of the rules designed to prevent two riders from the same team from taking to the road in succession and thereby gain some kind of advantage, the starting order of the final three riders – Evans, followed by Frank and then Andy Schleck – reflected in reverse their order on GC this morning.
Going through the first intermediate time check at 15 kilometres, Evans had already pulled back most of his deficit on the maillot jaune, taking 38 seconds out of Schleck as he posted, together with Alberto Contador, the joint second fastest time of 20 minutes 33 seconds, 21 seconds down on Martin.
It was already clear that the Leopard Trek rider, runner-up to Contador in the past two editions of the race, was going to struggle to hold on to the maillot jaune, which he would wear on the road for less than an hour, surely some kind of record.
By the second time check at 27.5 kilometres, his time advantage had evaporated and he had ceded a further three quarters of a minute to Evans. The gap between the pair had grown to more than 2 minutes over the next 10 kilometres, and by the time Schleck crossed the line to bring today’s stage to a close, he was 2 minutes 38 seconds down on the Australian.
Schleck is therefore set to be runner-up for the third year running, with his brother Frank third, while Evans, so often himself the nearly-man in Grand Tours, including twice finishing second in the Tour de France, is now set to add the biggest of them all to his palmarès alongside the 2009 world championship.
Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, the man who had held France captivated for the past fortnight as he fought to keep the maillot jaune but not a specialist against the clock, started in what was to all intents a distant fourth, 2 minutes 10 seconds down on the leader. He wouldn’t figure in the battle for the overall title today, but he did enough to confirm fourth place.
To no-one’s surprise, four-time world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Leopard Trek, the 42nd man out on the undulating course this morning, set what was at that point the fastest time, completing the 42.5 kilometre circuit in 57 minutes 15 seconds.
In common with the other early starters, however, the Swiss rider, who was followed around the course by the Schleck brothers in the team car, was hampered by heavy rain – so much so that his time was nearly 2 minutes slower than that posted by Martin when he won the individual time trial in last month’s Criterium du Dauphiné.
The man who had finished second behind the German that day on his way to overall victory in the week-long stage race, Bradley Wiggins, was of course missing today after breaking his collarbone in the opening week of the Tour, and Team Sky and the British rider’s fans can only speculate over what might have been.
Saxo Bank-SunGard’s Richie Porte went 12 seconds faster than Cancellara, with Thomas De Gendt of Vacansoleil-DCM beating the Australian’s time by 1 second, but even as they were posting those times, Martin was ripping the course to pieces.
The HTC-Highroad rider’s time of 55 minutes 33 seconds beat the one posted by De Gendt by 1 minute 29 seconds and was just 6 seconds outside the time that Martin himself had posted in the Dauphiné.
Contador, sporting the red dossard that denoted his winning yesterday’s combativity prize, the number 1 signifying status as defending champion, made an untidy start, having to put a foot down to steady himself before rolling off down the start ramp.
Eighth in the GC this morning, his efforts this afternoon saw him rise to fifth overall, but nearly four minutes down on the man who tomorrow will succeed him as Tour de France champion.
Pierre Rolland of Europcar, France’s hero yesterday on the Alpe d’Huez where he became the only Frenchman to win a stage of this year’s race, did enough to hold off the challenge of Cofidis rider Reim Taaramae at the top of the best young rider’s classification and will ride into Paris in the white jersey tomorrow.
This evening, the 167 riders left in the race head to Paris not by TGV, the usual way a transfer of this nature would be undertaken, but in a Qatar Airways jet, in accordance with an agreement signed by Tour de France organisers ASO and the airline earlier this year.
The one piece of unresolved business remains the destination of the gren jersey. HTC-Highroad's Mark Cavendish holds a 15-point lead over Movistar's Jose Joauquin Rojas, and if he finishes ahead of the Spaniard tomorrow, will become only the second British rider ever to win a Tour de France jersey, following in the footsteps of Robert Millar, mountain classification winner in 1984.
Cavendish, winner on the Champs-Elysees in each of the last two years, will also be looking to complete a unique hat-trick to become the only man to have won there on three occasions.
Tour de France Stage 20 result 1 MARTIN Tony HTC - HIGHROAD 55' 33" 2 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING + 00' 07" 3 CONTADOR Alberto SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 01' 06" 4 DE GENDT Thomas VACANSOLEIL-DCM + 01' 29" 5 PORTE Richie SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 01' 30" 6 PERAUD Jean-Christophe AG2R LA MONDIALE + 01' 33" 7 SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 01' 37" 8 CANCELLARA Fabian LEOPARD-TREK + 01' 42" 9 VELITS Peter HTC - HIGHROAD + 02' 03" 10 TAARAMAE Rein COFIDIS + 02' 03" 11 DANIELSON Tom GARMIN - CERVELO + 02' 08" 12 HAGEN Edvald Boasson SKY PROCYCLING + 02' 10" 13 VOECKLER Thomas EUROPCAR + 02' 14" 14 MONFORT Maxime LEOPARD-TREK + 02' 36" 15 KOREN Kristjan LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 02' 36" 16 MALORI Adriano LAMPRE - ISD + 02' 38" 17 SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK + 02' 38" 18 WESTRA Lieuwe VACANSOLEIL-DCM + 02' 39" 19 RIBLON Christophe AG2R LA MONDIALE + 02' 39" 20 SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK + 02' 41" Tour de France Overall Standings after Stage 20 1 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING 83h 45' 20" 2 SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK + 01' 34" 3 SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK + 02' 30" 4 VOECKLER Thomas EUROPCAR + 03' 20" 5 CONTADOR Alberto SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 03' 57" 6 SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 04' 55" 7 CUNEGO Damiano LAMPRE - ISD + 06' 05" 8 BASSO Ivan LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 07' 23" 9 DANIELSON Tom GARMIN - CERVELO + 08' 15" 10 PERAUD Jean-Christophe AG2R LA MONDIALE + 10' 11"
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.