With Frank Schleck defending his Tour de France lead from five close contenders heading into two tough mountain stages and with a time trial still to come, this year’s race is the most wide open in years.
The Luxembourg rider knows the best way to keep the yellow jersey is to attack Cadel Evans of Australia and Denis Menchov of Russia in the next two mountain stages and hope he has a big enough lead before the time trial.
“I don’t remember a Tour as open as this, with three riders within 10 seconds of each other, and six riders within 50 seconds,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.
Schleck is seven seconds ahead of Bernhard Kohl of Austria and 0:08 in front of Evans. Menchov is 0:38 back in fourth place, while American rider Christian Vande Velde is :39 behind and Carlos Sastre of Spain trails by :49.
“It’s the closest Tour ever isn’t it? I think it will probably go all the way to Paris like that,” Evans said. “It’s great for you guys watching, but it’s a little bit anxious for us.”
Schleck will need to increase his lead by Saturday’s time trial if he wants to win the race.
“I am not a time-trial specialist, even if having the yellow jersey gives you wings,” Schleck said on Monday’s rest day. “With the team we have, we can continue to be aggressive.”
Schleck took the yellow jersey from Evans by attacking him in the final climb of Sunday’s 15th stage up to the Italian ski resort of Prato Nevoso. But it was only a small time gain and, with two punishing stages to come in the Alps, he knew he had to cushion his lead further when yesterday’s 16th stage headed out of Italy and into the French Alps.
“We have a really strong team and that is what could be the key for us in the Alps,” Schleck said.
Although Evans kept his time losses manageable on Sunday, it may have come at a price.
The 31-year-old Australian slumped over his handlebars on the final climb, his body language showing he was in great difficulty while Schleck, Sastre, Menchov and Kohl looked strong.
“He looked as though he was suffering a bit,” Schleck said of Evans.
This all makes for exciting racing, and it is a far cry from Lance Armstrong’s era where, 2003 aside, the American crushed his rivals by several minutes, not a handful of seconds.
The Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) performed surprise doping tests on Schleck and his CSC team after Sunday’s stage.
As many as six riders were tested, CONI confirmed on Monday without providing further details.
The French anti-doping agency is controlling drug testing at this year’s Tour. CONI, which oversees doping within Italy, indicated that Sunday’s tests were part of a pre-race agreement with the French authorities.
Three cyclists have been ejected from this year’s Tour for using the banned blood-booster EPO.