Evans and Schleck primed for time-trial showdown

NICOLAS ROCHE paid for his exertions on Thursday when he came in over 25 minutes down on stage winner Pierre Rolland (Europcar) on yesterday’s gruelling 109 kilometre stage 19 of the Tour de France from Modane to the ski station at Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps.

The Irishman slipped back to 26th overall on the general classification, 40 minutes down on the new leader of the race, Luxembourger Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) who crossed the line in ninth place in a five-man group containing those most likely to usurp him of the maillot jaune.

Incidentally, one of those is his older brother and team-mate Frank, who trails by 53 seconds, but more worryingly, Australian powerhouse Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) is just a further four seconds back.

Today’s penultimate stage is a 42.5km time-trial in Grenoble and will most likely decide the winner of this year’s race, with tomorrow’s final stage to Paris traditionally one for the sprinters.

Evans is a far superior time-triallist than the two Schlecks and will be favourite to triumph. The big question, however, is will he win by enough.

Thomas Voeckler, who valiantly clung to the yellow jersey for 11 consecutive days, eventually saw his tenure as race leader shredded yesterday as he finished three minutes and 22 seconds down. He now trails the younger Schleck by two minutes and 10 seconds and all hope of a first French victory in the race since Bernard Hinault 26 years ago have disappeared.

The day worked out perfectly for Andy Schleck who had to put up with several attacks from his rivals. Three-time champion Alberto Contador put in the most threatening assault after just 16km as he sought to reduce his arrears.

Andy Schleck marked the move, but he was the only member of the top 10 able to stay with Contador. The long descent from the Col du Galibier, the day’s second climb, allowed the main protagonists to converge before beginning the fabled 21 hairpin bends on the finishing ascent to Alpe-d’Huez.

Contador again made a move on the lower slopes to power clear, but Rolland triumphed after timing his counter attack perfectly to better Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) by 14 seconds with Contador a further nine seconds back in third.

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