SAINT-ETIENNE // Cadel Evans has become used to riding on his own at this year's Tour de France. The Australian was virtually deserted by his Silence-Lotto team-mates in both the Pyrenees and the Alps, which should leave him in good stead for the stage that will decide this year's Tour.
Today's 19th stage from Roanne to Montlucon is merely an aperitif in which the sprinters or a breakaway rider will get the chance to shine before the Tour-deciding time trial. Tomorrow, each rider will spend roughly an hour riding solo the 53-kilometre course from Cerilly to Saint Amand-Montrond, but having no teammates around him will not exactly be unfamiliar territory for Evans. "Until now it's been three against one," he said, referring to Team CSC Saxo Bank's Carlos Sastre, Frank and Andy Schleck.
Evans' main rival for glory, Sastre, has been surrounded by team-mates in recent days, bar his sensational climb up Alpe d'Huez, which moved him from fourth to first in the space of just 13.8km. Evans might have 1min 34 secs to make up on Sastre, but he has a self-belief in his time trialling not shared by the Spaniard. Looking ahead to the stage, Evans said: "My time trialling's improved a lot this year.
"I felt I did a good ride in Cholet [the stage four Tour time trial] and I kept a bit in reserve then. I also feel the longer course suits me so I'm confident of clocking a good time. Whether it'll be enough to reel in Carlos, we'll have to wait and see. Last year I had to gain two minutes on a Spaniard - it's the same this time." At last year's final Tour time trial, Evans clocked a time 2:33 quicker than Sastre.
But in the end, Evans' time was not enough to unseat Sastre's countryman Alberto Contador from the race lead. Ominously for Sastre, Evans has improved as a time trialler in the last year and has one of the best time trial bikes. He was 1:16 quicker than Sastre on the fourthstage time trial and that will give him a psychological advantage.One plus point for Sastre is those around him. Team boss Bjarne Riis is a former Tour winner, while tips will be passed on by teammate Fabian Cancellara, potentially one of the favourites to win tomorrow's stage.
Sastre, 33, said of his chances: "I don't know whether the gains from Alpe d'Huez will be enough for the time trial. We'll see." One move that might yet prove costly was Sastre's reaction when he won on Alpe d'Huez on Wednesday. He took his hands off the handlebars and lifted his hands in celebration. But he said: "The victory celebration cost no more than a second. This year's race finale has echoes of the 1989 Tour, which boasted a final day time trial on the Champs Elysees. The American rider Greg Lemond started 50 seconds behind leader Laurent Fignon but turned it around to win by eight seconds.
There are other riders between Sastre and Evans in the general classification, Frank Schleck and Bernhard Kohl, but both men are probably weaker time triallists than the current Tour leader. In with a better shout is Denis Menchov, but the deficit he has of 1:05 on Evans should be too much for the Russian to make up. However, time-trialling is not a perfect science and it could be that over the zig-zag course dotted with short climbs and steep descents, a puncture or fall for any one of the leading protagonists might end up deciding the result.