Gutsy Evans beats Contador

THE veteran Australian Cadel Evans confirmed his excellent start to the Tour de France yesterday with a gutsy uphill victory against all of the main favourites. The two top overall contenders sprinting for a finish outside the mountains is a relatively rare sight in the Tour, but Evans squeaked across the line on the agonisingly steep Mûr-de-Bretagne climb just millimetres ahead of Alberto Contador.

Apart from the psychological advantage of outpowering a major favourite like the Spaniard, Evans’ victory at the summit of the relentless two-kilometre climb in deepest Britanny brought the Australian within one second of the yellow jersey.

At the same time, it was the most convincing evidence yet that rather than the widely predicted two-way battle between Contador and Andy Schleck, this could well become a Tour with several contenders, of whom Evans is the most persistent. Second overall in 2007 and 2008, injuries pushed him out of the running in 2009 and 2010.

But after becoming Australia’s first ever World Champion in 2009 and a superb spring campaign this year - with wins in the prestigious Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Romandie stage races, as well as second in the Criterium du Dauphine in June - the BMC rider is clearly not going to let the Tour de France slip away so easily.

His determination was evident on yesterday’s stage after mechanical problems forced the Australian to chase past almost the entire peloton with less than 20 kilometres to go. “I had to come past the whole field when they were going full gas and I had no idea if I’d have anything left in the tank after such a big effort,” Evans said. “At the end, though, it all came down to motivation and tactics.”

He could also have mentioned calculating his strength to the finest degree. A winner of the FlEche Wallonne Classic in 2010 - which boasts a similarly steep finish in the Belgian Ardennes - Evans again had the right strategy yesterday, following Contador when the Spaniard weaved away 500 metres from the finish.

When Contador then hesitated for a fraction of a second at the head of a small knot of just nine riders, Evans stormed past, with the Spaniard shadowing him on his right and attempting to sneak past at the post.

The Australian’s winning margin was so close that the Spaniard half-raised his arm, and it is likely that if the stage had been five metres longer, the Saxo Bank rider would have been the one with both arms pointing skywards on the podium.

Instead, it was Evans who claimed his first ever mass-start road stage of the Tour, and - with a certain poetic justice - he did so ahead of third-placed Alexandre Vinokourov. The Kazakh tested positive in the 2007 Tour for an illegal blood transfusion and was kicked out of the race, but not before he had claimed a time trial win ahead of Evans.

Britain’s Bradley Wiggins finished six seconds off the pace, but that could have been expected. Steep, punchy uphill climbs like the Mûr-de-Bretagne are far from Wiggins’ favourite terrain and his 11th place on the stage saw him move up to sixth overall.

“These stages are about staying safe and not giving away too much,” Wiggins said. “I conceded a few seconds at the top, but gained on others.” Those others include Andy Schleck, Contador’s arch-rival, who lost eight seconds on the Spaniard.

Contador too, could be satisfied with his near-miss, following a disastrous start to this year’s Tour that has seen him lose nearly two minutes on the main contenders. “I would have liked to have won for the team and for my fans,” Contador said, “but this wasn’t a bad performance. Other riders like Andy Schleck and Evans have come to this Tour in better shape than me , but it’s good to regain time and get back into the game.”

Assuming today’s ride along the windblasted Breton coastline does not cause major splits in the peloton and tomorrow’s sharp little climbs in the final kilometres at Lisieux is also trouble free, the ball now returns to the sprinters’ court.

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