- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

DIGNES-LES-BAINS, France | Tour de France riders approached the Alps focused more on racing and less on the fallout of three scandals over drug use.

Three-time world champion Oscar Freire of Spain closed in on the sprint title by winning Saturday’s 14th stage, while Australia’s Cadel Evans kept the yellow jersey in the doping-battered race for a fifth straight day.

Evans, who was runner-up last year, knows his clutch on the race leader’s yellow jersey is about to be challenged - notably by Team CSC, which has two strong climbers who are within 1 1/2 minutes of him.

“Tomorrow the challenges to my yellow jersey will begin,” said Evans, adding that his Silence Lotto team has tried to save the energy of riders who could escort him up the Alpine climbs. “I have to play a smart race.

“We don’t have the strongest team for the mountains, we are well aware of that - and I’m sure my competitors are as well,” Evans said.

Freire, a three-time world champion, won a mass sprint at the end of the 120.9-mile trek from Nimes to Digne-les-Bains and moved in on clinching the green jersey given to the Tour’s best sprinter.

The 32-year-old Rabobank rider collected his fourth Tour stage victory and his first this year with a time of 4 hours, 13 minutes, 8 seconds. Freire’s hold on the green jersey had come under pressure from Mark Cavendish, who won the last two stages in sprints. But the British rider fell behind in the final climb up the low-grade L’Orme pass, and he missed out on the final dash.

Bjarne Riis, the CSC team manager, said his team is going to “show some fireworks” in the Alps. His contenders include Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, who trails Evans by one second, and Spain’s Carlos Sastre, who is 1:28 back.

“Obviously, the strategy is to try and isolate Evans,” said Riis, the 1996 Tour winner who stayed home from the race last year just weeks after his admission that he had used EPO on way to his victory. “If we want to win this Tour de France we have to attack on these three hard stages in the Alps.”

Other riders to watch are Bernhard Kohl of Germany, a strong climber who is 46 seconds behind Evans in fourth, and Russia’s Denis Menchov, who is 57 seconds back in sixth.

“I think Menchov is the best candidate in this Tour,” said Freire of his Rabobank teammate. “It’s really in this last phase of the Tour that the race is going to be determined.”

The Alpine stages start hard, and get progressively tougher.

Sunday’s 113.7-mile ride from Embrun, France, to Prato Nevoso, Italy features the Agnel pass, a climb so hard it defies categorization in cycling’s ranking system, and an uphill finish.

After a rest day Monday, riders face two “beyond category” climbs Tuesday. Then, it’s the grandaddy of this year’s race - Wednesday’s wicked 130.8-mile ride along three “hors categorie” ascents, up the Galibier and Croix de Fer passes and a finish on the famed Alpe d’Huez.

For those still in contention after that, the last big test will come in a time trial in the next-to-last stage before the July 27 finish in Paris.

One lingering question mark is whether the Tour will be doping free between now and then. These days, virtually no competitor is entirely above suspicion.

Three riders this year tested positive for EPO, a banned blood booster, leading to their ouster and threatening to consign this year’s 95th edition to the annals of doping-marred Tours - just like drug use and cheats marred the event in 2006 and 2007.

The scandals involving Spanish riders Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado and young Italian star Riccardo Ricco - the winner of two stages this year - have all but quashed the hopes of Tour organizers that this year might have been the one that cycling’s premiere event got past its doping woes.

Ricco’s Saunier Duval team pulled out of the race and fired both him and Leonardo Piepoli, winner of the 10th stage, for “violation of the team’s ethical code,” the team said, without elaborating.

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