|Sylvain Chavanel celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 19th stage of the Tour. (CHRISTOPHE ENA/Associated Press)|
MONTLUCON, France - At the Tour de France, this is it.
The only stage that now matters in cycling's three-week showcase is today's time trial. And for Carlos Sastre, who is wearing the yellow jersey, this is the moment he's been waiting for.
The Spanish veteran is a strong climber and now needs the time trial of his career if he is to be the winner when the race ends tomorrow in Paris.
Five riders appear to have a shot at the title, although surprises could await in today's 33-mile leg from Cerilly to Saint-Amand-Montrond. Three Alpine stages ended Tuesday, cutting the field of legitimate hopefuls.
Tour organizers couldn't be more pleased: Suspense lasting until the next-to-last stage was exactly what they wanted, and the tension is a welcome respite from the commotion surrounding three doping busts in the first two weeks of the race.
The top of the standings didn't change after yesterday's 19th stage in which Sylvain Chavanel of France led a two-man breakaway to win the run from Rouanne to Montlucon.
"Tomorrow will be the opportunity of my life," Sastre said. "I'm going to go all out."
Overall, Frank Schleck of Luxembourg is in second place, 1 minute 24 seconds back. Bernhard Kohl of Austria is 1:33 behind, while Cadel Evans of Australia is fourth, a second slower. Denis Menchov of Russia trails by 2:39 and has an outside shot because he's a strong time-trial rider.
But the odds are on Evans, the Tour runner-up in 2007. The outcome of time trials can be predictable because riders tend to be good in them or not.
In two time-trial stages at the last Tour, which had a similar length to today's, Evans placed second and was more than two minutes faster than Sastre each time. Kohl and Schleck were even slower than the Spaniard.
The Australian senses the math in his favor. He calls it "highly possible" that he can be wearing yellow for tomorrow's finale on the Champs-Elysees.
But he still has a 1:34 deficit to erase. And Sastre, who has been among the top 10 five times in the Tour de France, enjoys some advantages.
In the time trial, riders set off one by one down the starter's ramp in a race against the clock in reverse order of the standings, meaning Sastre goes last. He can see how others fare, and how he might compensate. He said he'll be looking for tips from CSC teammate Fabian Cancellara, a strong time-trial racer, who will have finished his ride before Sastre even starts.
Not to be discounted is the aura of the leader's shirt.
"The big difference is that I'll have the yellow jersey on my shoulders, and that will give me greater strength and more confidence," Sastre said.
For Kohl or Schleck to win, each will need an incredibly good day and a bad one for Sastre. For Menchov, the calculation is Sastre having a bad day and Evans a terrible one.
Christian Vande Velde from Lemont, Ill., who is sixth at 4:41 behind Sastre, is a solid time-trial rider. But his best chance at a top-three finish would seem to depend on a combination of troubles striking the higher-placed contenders.
Other variables include the weather and mental preparedness. Bjarne Riis, owner of Sastre's Team CSC, appeared to want to get inside the Australian's head for the race against the clock.
"You need to have good legs, but the pressure is on Evans," he said. "It is more of a disappointment for him if he does not have the yellow jersey in Paris."
Evans was considered one of the favorites before the race. Alberto Contador of Spain, who won the 2007 Tour, isn't riding because his doping-plagued Astana team wasn't invited by organizers.
Slick roads can wreak havoc on time-trial riders. In the crucial, final time trial in the 2003 Tour, Germany's Jan Ullrich went all out to catch Lance Armstrong but fell on wet pavement.
The forecast is for cloudy skies throughout the day and stormy, windy conditions possible when the top riders set off.
"It's not really a very technical course, but there's always a little bit of danger," Evans said. "The last time I rode in a rainy time trial, I did pretty well."
The Tour's last stage is almost always a ceremonial one for the race leader because it's mostly flat and any attempt at a breakaway by a rival for the title is easy to reel in. Tradition clearly rules: no attacks on the leader.