By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse
The Tour de France yellow jersey is set to be decided on the final alpine stage of the race on Wednesday after a dramatic 16th stage which left CSC still in control of the race.
Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck finished the 157km stage from Cueno in Italy to here with his 7-second lead on Austrian Bernhard Kohl intact, with Australian Cadel Evans in third at 08.
Spaniard Carlos Sastre, Schleck’s teammate at the CSC team, is fourth at 49 while Denis Menchov, one of the day’s biggest losers, is now at 1:13behind Schleck after losing time on the day’s final descent.
The standings could change dramatically on the 17th stage, which features two unclassified climbs before the 14km climb to the summit finish of Alpe d’Huez, after Schleck’s CSC team failed to eliminate Evans from the equation.
Evans, of Silence-Lotto, was one of the big winners of the day after two of the riders expected to challenge him in the race’s final time trial, American Christian Vande Velde and Menchov, both lost time on the second of three days in the Alps.
Garmin team leader Vande Velde failed to keep pace with the CSC-led chasing peloton on the way over the Restefond climb and he eventually trailed in to drop to sixth place overall at 3:15 behind Schleck.
Menchov trailed in at 2:03 behind stage winner Cyril Dessel of the AG2R team, although crucially the Russian lost 35secs to all his big rivals.
CSC had planned to attack their rivals in a bid to either reinforce Schleck’s lead or get their co-team leader Sastre into a better position ahead of the 17th stage from Embrun to Alpe d’Huez.
However a strong headwind blowing at the top of what is the highest road in Europe, at 2802 metres altitude, forced them to change their plans.
On the descent down to Jausiers Evans momentarily flirted with disaster when he just missed a motorbike belonging to a race official who had stopped to attend to South African John-Lee Augustyn, who had flown over the side.
Evans recovered and used his superb downhill skills eventually coming over the finish line with all the main favourites, save for Menchov, at 1:28 behind Frenchman Dessel.
Dessel had been part of a 28-man group that had earlier gone off in chase of Germany’s Stefan Schumacher, of the Gerolsteiner team.
Schumacher was caught prior to the summit of the Restefond, and then a smaller, four-man group raced down towards the finish where Dessel raced ahead of compatriot Sandy Casar to claim his second win on the race.