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Testing times: Schlecks and Evans ready for one final push

This afternoon’s individual time trial will decide the destination of the 2011 Yellow Jersey.

Andy (left) and Frank Schleck (right) lead the way from Cadel Evans (centre) during yesterday's stage to Alpe d'Huez.
Andy (left) and Frank Schleck (right) lead the way from Cadel Evans (centre) during yesterday's stage to Alpe d'Huez.
Image: AP Photo/Joel Saget, POOL

THIS AFTERNOON, RIDERS will set out one by one in the suspenseful final time trial in the Tour de France, with Cadel Evans or one of the Schleck brothers most likely to take home the yellow jersey.

Andy Schleck of Luxembourg holds a 53-second lead over older brother Frank, and a 57-second gap on Australia’s Evans — seen as the best time-trial rider among the three.

The riders compete today in reverse order of the standings, so the contenders hit the course last.

Although there is one more stage, the leader after the time trial is almost certain to be the overall victor: Sunday’s finale on the Champs-Elysees in Paris tends to be ceremonial, because launching a successful attack on that flat last stage is virtually impossible.

Alberto Contador of Spain, the defending champion, made a last-ditch push yesterday in the final ride in the Alps, but came up short: his three-peat bid all but over.

The final result ahead the 26.4-mile race against the clock in Grenoble remains a toss-up: time trials have often been an Evans specialty, but Andy Schleck believes he has the margin he needs to win.

In the time-trial of the Criterium du Dauphine stage race last month — the exact same one as today’s — Evans placed sixth against some of the world’s best time-trialers, and was 1:20 back of winner Tony Martin.

Schleck wasn’t there. In the final time trial in last year’s Tour, he placed 44th — 6:14 behind winner Fabian Cancellara — but only 31 seconds slower than Contador, one of the world’s top time-trialers. Evans was more than 4½ minutes slower, but was out of race contention then.

In the 2008 Tour, Evans was nearly 2 minutes faster than Andy in a time trial that was about 6 miles longer. But that was his first Tour, he was only 23, and has worked to improve his time-trial skills.

“Fifty-seven seconds, well, that’s a minute — it’s a lot, even if he is a specialist,” Andy said yesterday.

I’m not a specialist. But the yellow jersey on your shoulders, it gives you wings.

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France’s Thomas Voeckler, whose 10-day run in yellow was snapped by Andy Schleck yesterday, is fourth, 2:10 back. Italy’s Damiano Cunego is fifth, 3:31 back, and Contador is sixth, 3:55 behind.

“We know it’s not finished”

The parallels between Andy and Evans are considerable. They’re both two-time runners-up. They’ve both been second to Contador — Evans once and Schleck twice — and each know what it’s like to just barely miss out on victory. Evans was second to Contador by 23 seconds in 2007; Schleck was 39 seconds behind the Spaniard last year — two of the closest finishes in the 108-year history of the race.

Evans, of the U.S. team BMC, would be the first Australian winner. Schleck — whichever one — would be the first Luxembourg rider since Charly Gaul was the first and only from winner from that country to win, in 1958.

Andy says it has been a childhood dream to be on the podium with his older brother.

First and second a day before Paris: what more could anyone want? … We’re here. But we know it’s not finished. We’re both motivated.

No brothers have ever shared a Tour de France podium.

Voeckler lost the coveted yellow shirt to Andy Schleck yesterday after cracking on the day’s first climb — and couldn’t catch up on the famed Alpe d’Huez finish in Stage 19, won by Europcar teammate Pierre Rolland.

“My motivation is super, my legs are good, my condition is there, so I’m confident I can keep this till Paris,” Andy said of the leader’s tunic.

Evans’ formula for capturing it?

“Start as fast as possible. Finish as fast as possible. Hope you’re fast enough,” he said.

– AP

READ – Sprint finish: more mayhem on Alpe d’Huez >

READ – Here’s Alberto Contador slapping a spectator at the Tour de France today >

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