- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

CUNEO, Italy (AP) | Two tough mountain stages and a time trial await in the Tour de France, which is building to its closest finish in years. Frank Schleck has a plan on how to keep his yellow jersey: attack.

The Luxembourg rider knows he must go after Cadel Evans of Australia and Denis Menchov of Russia in the next two mountain stages following Monday’s off day. Then he hopes he has a big enough lead before the time trial.

“I don’t remember a Tour as open as this with three riders within 10 seconds of each other and six riders within 50 seconds,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.

Schleck is seven seconds ahead of Bernhard Kohl of Austria and eight in front of Evans. Menchov is 38 back in fourth place, while Christian Vande Velde of the United States is 39 behind and Carlos Sastre of Spain trails by 49.

“It’s the closest Tour ever isn’t it? I think it will probably go all the way to Paris like that,” Evans said. “It’s great for you guys watching, but it’s a little bit anxious for us.”

Schleck will need to increase his lead by Saturday’s time trial if he wants to win.

“I am not a time-trial specialist, even if having the yellow jersey gives you wings,” Schleck said. “With the team we have, we can continue to be aggressive.”

Schleck took the yellow jersey from Evans by attacking him in the final climb of Sunday’s 15th stage up to the Italian ski resort of Prato Nevoso. But it was only a small time gain, and with two punishing stages to come in the Alps, he knows he has to cushion his lead when Tuesday’s 16th stage heads out of Italy and into the French Alps.

It is even tougher and has two climbs beyond classification. The Lombarde ascends for 13.3 miles and La Bonette-Restefond grinds upward for 15.8 miles. The three climbs in Wednesday’s 17th stage - the Galibier, Croix de Fer and L’Alpe d’Huez - are all beyond classification.

“We have a really strong team, and that is what could be the key for us in the Alps,” Schleck said.

Although Evans kept his time losses manageable Sunday, it may have come at a price. The 31-year-old Australian slumped over his handlebars on the final climb, his body language showing he was in great difficulty while Schleck, Sastre, Menchov and Kohl looked strong.

“He looked as though he was suffering a bit,” Schleck said.

This all makes for exciting racing. And it is a far cry from Lance Armstrong’s era, when, 2003 aside, the American crushed his rivals by several minutes, not a handful of seconds.

“There is a lot of suspense, which is what organizers dream of,” Prudhomme said.

Providing doping stays away long enough - and does not hit one of the top six.

The Italian Olympic Committee performed surprise doping tests on Schleck and his CSC team after Sunday’s stage. As many as six riders were tested, and no results were announced.

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