Yellow jersey looms for Evans
Paris - Cadel Evans took another positive step towards his maiden Tour de France victory on Thursday, but was given fair warning of the pitfalls that could lie ahead on the last mountain stage.
On a day that saw Andy Schleck win the epic 18th stage to finally launch his bid for the yellow jersey, and reigning champion Alberto Contador slump down the standings, Evans showed class and determination as he led a tiring group of favourites almost single-handedly in pursuit of the Luxemburger.
Left on his own for the final 22.8km climb to the Galibier after his team had burned their powder on the Col d'Agnel and Col d'Izoard, Evans was given scant help by ad hoc allies for the remainder of the race.
In the end the BMC team leader finished 2:15 behind Schleck, dropping to fourth at 1:12 behind surprise race leader Thomas Voeckler of Europcar.
Evans's biggest worry, however, is how to deal with the formidable tactics of the Schlecks' Leopard-Trek team when the 109 km 19th stage to Alpe d'Huez wraps up the mountains stages on Friday.
Leopard-Trek used the old tactic of sending riders up in an early breakaway, launching a solo attack from behind, and then having the breakaway riders support the soloist to great effect.
While Evans suffered, the day's biggest loser was three-time champion Contador, who struggled all day, eventually sliding to the back of Evans' chase group inside the final kilometre.
He came over the finish line defeated, 3:50 down on Schleck and dropped to 4:44 behind Voeckler in the standings.
"Victory is now impossible," said Contador, who came into the race with questions marks over his ability to perform in the crucial third week after using up energy winning his second Giro d'Italia in May.
On Thursday knee pain which the Spaniard has suffered in the first week also appeared to flare up, but he did not use that as an excuse.
"Andy played his cards well. He sent two of his guys in the breakaway, it was an intelligent move. You have to take your hat off to them," added Contador.
"I'm not used to the kind of situation I was in today. Now I have to get rest, recover and look ahead to tomorrow."
Whether Contador can become an ad hoc ally of Evans remains to be seen.
However given that the Australian is probably the strongest time triallist of the current top ten and there is a 42.5 km race against the clock on Saturday, the Schlecks need to take more time off Evans.
After 18 stages of riding in support of his bid, Evans now needs his team's unstinting support one last time if they are to thwart the Schlecks.
Yet he gave an indication of their threat after Thursday's epic stage.
"It seems like the Schleck brothers had the best climbing team, in combination," said Evans.
"They put it all on the line and they really had to do a long range attack. I can't control an attack 30k out. And if Andy comes back, Frank's probably going to go away."
Fans will be hoping it won't be praying on Evans' mind, but the last time he was in a yellow jersey position on the Tour was in 2008, when the last mountain stage also finished on Alpe d'Huez.
On that occasion, the Schlecks helped Carlos Sastre launch an attack at the foot of the legendary 14 km alpine climb, as Evans, stranded, fought to limit the damage.
The next day Sastre then sealed victory when he rode out of his skin, and Evans flattered to deceive, on the penultimate stage time trial.
Despite the challenge, however, Evans's team say they are prepared.
"This race isn't over and we're still in contention and Friday is another day," said team manager Jim Ochowicz.
"It's going to be hard on Friday. But we're going to be as competitive as we have been every day thus far in the race."