Andy Schleck paid tribute to Tour de France rival Cadel Evans as the BMC Racing team captain took the coveted yellow jersey after the penultimate stage time trial.

2011 Tour de France, stage 20, Andy Schleck
Andy Schleck was no match for Cadel Evans in the crucial race against the clock. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

GRENOBLE, France (AFP) — Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck paid tribute to Tour de France rival Cadel Evans as the BMC Racing team captain took the coveted yellow jersey after the stage-20 time trial on Saturday.

“Cadel did the time trial of his life, and he deserves to win the Tour,” said Schleck, who had taken the race lead only 24 hours from Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler.

Schleck went into the 42.5km race against the clock with a 57-second cushion on Evans, confident he could take the storied tunic all the way to Paris Sunday.

But against one of the best time trialists in the business, Schleck’s campaign fell apart by the halfway stage of the hilly, technical circuit, which Evans had raced last month during the Criterium du Dauphiné.

The Australian reduced his deficit by 36 seconds after just 15km and by the finish just missed the stage victory when he finished seven seconds behind Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad).

Schleck, a specialist climber who said three weeks ago he had concentrated “on my strengths, not my weaknesses”, finished 17th at 2:38 behind Martin and 2:31 behind Evans.

Evans now has a lead of 1:34 over Schleck ahead of Sunday’s final stage, a 95km run from Creteil to Paris that the overall contenders traditionally do not dispute.

Schleck had put himself firmly in contention for overall victory when he won the 18th stage to the legendary Galibier mountain pass on Thursday.

Despite putting Evans briefly into trouble on the final climbing day to L’Alpe d’Huez Friday, the Australian ultimately lost no more time to the Luxembourger on the 19th stage.

Schleck says his time trial performance was the best he could muster.

“I was really focused on this time trial,” said Schleck, whose brother Fränk dropped one place to third overall at 2:30 behind Evans.

“I realized the full importance of it. We did the reconnaissance this morning and remained committed to leaving everything out on the course.

“We know we did everything we could do in the mountains and today. Both Fränk and I probably did the best time trials we have ever done, but it wasn’t good enough. We don’t have any regrets in this perspective.”

Now set to claim the runner-up place for the third consecutive year, having finished second to Alberto Contador in 2009 and 2010, Schleck said he and his brother had no regrets.

“It’s disappointing in a way, but if you look at the size and importance of the Tour, it’s a real honor to be second, especially when your brother is one step down,” said Schleck.

“We would have hoped to have one Schleck on top of the podium, but we’re proud of each other and proud of ourselves.”

It is the best ever finish in the race for Fränk Schleck, who added: “Andy and I have been talking about this for years now. We’ve never been this close. We made the plan before we came to France that we would leave France three weeks later without any regrets.

“We have accomplished that. We knew from the start that there was more than just Alberto Contador as a rival.

“We knew Evans would prove to be a true competitor and a tough guy to beat.”