GAP, France (VN) – Cadel Evans is riding a Tour de France of opportunity and his team sees more chances to take time on the horizon with an unlikely ally in Alberto Contador. Evans (BMC Racing) vaulted off a Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) attack late in Tuesday’s 16th stage to take time on his GC rivals at the foot of the Alps.
When asked after the stage whether the aggression Contador must show in the Tour’s final week would benefit Evans as it did Tuesday, BMC Racing president Jim Ochowicz said yes.
“Yeah, I think it can,” Ochowicz told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Contador wants to win the Tour and I think he’s got to do some things to make that happen. One of them is what he did today.”
While the Spaniard entered Tuesday’s stage four minutes down on the overall, Evans has made use of opportunity after opportunity to surprise the odds-on favorites in France.
Evans made the split in stage 1 ahead of a crash that cost Spaniards Contador and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) over a minute. Evans squeezed a handful of seconds out of Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) when he took the stage win atop the Mûr de Bretagnes on day four and tried again when he surged atop Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille after hanging with the attacking rivals on both summit finishes of the Pyrénées.
Evans scored his biggest coup of the Tour on Tuesday, however, when he followed a Contador attack high on the Cat. 2 Col de Manse, 20km from the finish in Gap. When the move caught out second and fourth overall Andy and Fränk Schleck and fifth overall Basso, Evans opened the throttle and time trialed away from Contador and Sanchez.
“The guys, George (Hincapie) and (Marcus Burghardt), they got me right in the right position at the bottom of the last climb. From there I just had to play my cards as they came out,” said Evans. “I wasn’t expecting so much on the climb. I was more prepared for everything on the downhill actually because it’s a little bit narrow and dangerous.”
By the time the last of the GC favorites followed Evans across the line in the center of the Hautes-Alpes capital, Andy Schleck had lost 1:06. Basso shed 54 seconds, while maillot jaune Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Fränk Schleck came in at 21 seconds.
Despite the sharp climb and tricky descent in the final 23km, few expected a minute’s difference to be made on the GC in Gap.
“No. We knew it was a good opportunity today to take some time on the Schlecks on the downhill off La Rochette, so it was good to try there and see if we could make a little break,” said BMC director John LeLangue. “I was not expecting so much, but in the end it’s a good day for us.”
With the move, Evans vaulted over the older Schleck in the overall standings and pulled to within 1:45 of Voeckler. When he reached the team bus after the finish, Evans was asked if he could believe what he had done and answered simply, “I’ll have to go and look at the results.”
Jim Ochowicz said the the tricky, wet La Rochette descent was another in a series of chances to make small differences in time.
“We knew [Andy] has trouble on descents, especially if the road is wet it makes it more complicated,” Ochowicz told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We were confident in ourselves, not necessarily disillusioned by other peoples’ situations.”
With the Alps looming Wednesday and Evans’ strength in the final time trial, he enters the Tour’s last mountain stages in position to assume the overall lead from Voeckler en route to Paris.
“We’ve capitalized and we’ve made our own opportunities as well,” said Ochowicz. “Cadel followed the Contador move first, but then Cadel made the second move and that really put the gap on it at the top. We knew when we were over the top that we knew the descent really well and I wasn’t concerned that he couldn’t make more time or at least hold what he had on the descent.”
LeLangue expected Evans to capitalize on the hard attacks surely coming from Contador and the Schlecks in the Alps.
“I think that (Contador is) in the same position. He has time to gain on the other ones and he’s still there. We have still a big week in the mountains and a big time trial to go. At the moment everything is open,” he said. “Follow all the moves and day-after-day we see that some other ones are losing a few seconds. If we can counter-attack, even with Contador today was a good move to take two or three seconds, but we don’t know what will be tomorrow.”
Evans said on Monday’s rest day that after falling short in the final time trial in 2008, he would take every opportunity to gain more time on the GC men. He pointed to Friday as his biggest chance. That was before he sent Andy Schleck spiraling down the GC in Gap.
“What really interests me is a shortened stage to Alpe d’Huez,” said Evans. “For once we’ll get to Alpe d’Huez and race really hard, as opposed to being just a last one standing thing, which is normally the state the group arrives in. That’s going to be particularly interesting.”
Including the 34km ascent of the cols du Télégraphe and Galibier and a finish atop L’Alpe d’Huez in just 109km, the 21 switchbacks to the finish will be even more fierce than normal. As he’s done for more than two weeks, Evans will be there, looking for opportunities.