- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

HAUTACAM, France | Bruised and sore and aching from head to ankles, Cadel Evans stood on the podium with tears in his eyes and a yellow jersey on his back.

The Australian took the overall lead in the Tour de France on Monday after a punishing 10th stage through the Pyrenees. His surge to the front came a day after he tumbled over his handlebars, leaving him with a cracked helmet and a body coated with cuts. He feared his Tour de France was over.

“Yesterday, I was at what’s for me been my Tour low,” he said. “And today, up until this point in the Tour, it’s been my Tour high. It’s a bit an emotional roller coaster to say the least.”

The 31-year-old Silence Lotto leader, a favorite going into the race, seized the lead from Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg in a stage won by Leonardo Piepolo of Italy on Bastille Day. Evans has the smallest possible lead - one second - over Frank Schleck of Luxembourg as the race takes a rest day Tuesday.

With nine riders within 2 1/2 minutes of Evans, the Tour appears wide open and poised for more racing drama at a time when organizers hope to get past the doping scandals that have battered the sport’s image.

Piepolo won the 97-mile stage from Pau to Hautacam by shedding all rivals except his Saunier Duval teammate Juan Jose Cobo Acebo of Spain on the final uphill climb to the ski station.

Evans rode with pain all the way following his spill Sunday in the first stage in the Pyrenees.

“I’m lucky that I’ve been very well looked after,” Evans said. “My own osteopath who travels with me put me back into pieces, and the team doctor patched me up from ankle to neck - with a few holes.”

Evans’ eyes welled with tears during the postrace ceremony. This was the first time he has held the Tour lead; he finished second behind Alberto Contador of Spain last year.

“I couldn’t believe it now, and I couldn’t believe it then on the podium,” he said, adding he was encouraged by sights of the Australian flag on his grueling climb into Hautacam.

“The most painful thing was the descents. … Every swollen part of the body was bouncing in a bag of abraded skin,” he said. “Every speed bump hurt - put it that way.”

Evans rarely attacked the other favorites, who distanced themselves from the main pack in the 97-mile stage from Pau to Hautacam. The stage featured the passes of Tourmalet and Hautacam - climbs so hard they are beyond classification.

The day’s biggest loser was Alejandro Valverde, the Spanish national champion seen as a potential threat. He couldn’t keep up with his main rivals in the first climb up Tourmalet and continued to lose time. He finished 5 minutes, 52 seconds behind Piepoli and trails Evans by 4:41.

“It’s finished for the podium,” Caisse d’Epargne sporting director Eusebio Unzue said, referring to Valverde’s chances of a top-three finish.

History may work in Evans’ favor. In the three Tours with a stage finishing at the Hautacam, the rider who emerged with yellow jersey after the grueling 8.9-mile ascent kept the lead all the way to the finish - Miguel Indurain (1994), Bjarne Riis (1996) and Lance Armstrong (2000).

“Like the others who took the yellow jersey on the Hautacam, I hope I can continue in it” until the July 27 finish in Paris, Evans said. Challenges await, such as three days in the Alps and a time trial on the next-to-last stage.

Unlike Armstrong, who benefited from strong US Postal and Discovery Channel teams, Evans largely has had to go at it alone. He has had little if any escort from his squad.

“I admit that we don’t have the strongest team in the race,” he said. “But right now, I’m just satisfied about the work I’ve done today,” he said.

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