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Published: Thursday, 7/24/2008

Spain's Sastre takes toughest stage, lead

ASSOCIATED PRESS

ALPE D'HUEZ, France - The mountains have proved that Cadel Evans isn't the fastest man uphill, but the Australian may have done just enough to win the Tour de France.

Carlos Sastre of Spain did all he could to gain time on Evans by winning yesterday's 17th stage and taking the yellow jersey from his CSC teammate, Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, in the hardest Alpine ride this year.

With the toughest mountain stages over and a final time trial awaiting Saturday, the podium outlook is taking shape in what until now had been one of the closest Tours in years - with seven different riders having worn the yellow jersey.

Sastre beat other title contenders by at least two minutes in the 130.8-mile ride from Embrun to L'Alpe d'Huez. Overall, he leads Schleck by 1 minute, 24 seconds, and Bernhard Kohl of Germany by 1:33. The three-week race ends on Sunday.

While Evans is fourth, 1:34 back, he is the best time trial rider in that bunch, and his rivals knew they needed to get a big jump on him in the climbs. And Evans wasn't shaken when it counted.

"I suffered a lot on the way to the summit, but I take great pleasure in capturing the jersey," Sastre said through a translator. "A pure climber has to take advantage of his opportunities, and this was mine."

The strong position of Evans points more to cautious and canny riding, despite the CSC-led attacks on him during three Alpine stages.

Asked if he thinks he can win, Sastre said: "I don't know. I don't want to think about that now."

Two mostly flat stages before Saturday aren't likely to influence the leading bunch. Today's stage is a 122.1-mile ride through medium mountains from Bourg-d'Oisans to Saint-Etienne.

Evans, the 31-year-old Silence Lotto team leader who was second last year, is perhaps the man to beat - barring bad weather or a mishap. For him, being a complete rider matters most, through the flats and in the time trials as well as the mountains.



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