EVANS ABOVE… HIS RIVALS

No wonder Cadel Evans looked happy at the finish of yesterday’s Tour time trial.

He’d have been feeling even more content when he got to sit down with a copy of the general classification after Tuesday’s time trial in Cholet. It will have made pleasant reading.

The Australian is currently 51 seconds ahead of Denis Menchov, 1-05 up on Damiano Cunego and a further second in front of Alejandro Valverde. Carlos Sastre is the only other serious threat within a minute-and-a-half of him.

Okay, so these are not Tour-winning margins, but given the racing so far, they are good advantages to hold. Only Kim Kirchen, who lies two places above him in second position, has stolen a march. With the greatest respect to the rider from Luxembourg, Evans need not lose a moment’s sleep over the nine seconds he trails.

Evans, though, lives the Tour de France in seconds, not minutes. That is entirely understandable because at the end of a chaotic, controversial third week last year, he had lost the Tour by just 23 seconds.

For a man whose gameplan is to get in front and then keep a tight reign on the challengers, it’s going pretty well so far. He knows already that the others will have to attack him or hope he cracks.

And if there’s anything Evans has proved he’s adept at doing, it’s making sure he doesn’t get distanced in the mountains.

THE UNPREDICTABLE TOUR

It has been a remarkable opening few days. Any accusation that the Tour de France’s opening week can be formulaic or predictable has been thrown right out of the window.

That is not just down to ASO’s decision to drop the prologue in favour of an uphill finish on day one. And it was a lesson that the severity of a time trial course cannot be judged on paper. The Cholet test was a deceptive one that could only be appreciated once the riders tackled it. Flat it was not.

When all the results were in, it was clear Cancellara, the hottest of hot favourites, had misfired unexpectedly.

But when Stefan Schumacher crossed the line and trounced the Swiss rider’s time by 33 seconds, the shock was palpable.

Schumacher is not a bad time trial rider. He’s won plenty of time trial stages in small races before – the biggest being at last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy. And he was 15th at Angouleme at the end of last year’s Tour.

But there’s a world of difference between 15th and first in the Tour de France, even if the Cholet time trial was a good 20 kilometres shorter than the normal.

SCHUMACHER: A GOOD LEADER?

In a way, ASO has been unlucky with the identity of its new yellow jersey.

If the powers-that-be breathed a sigh of relief when the treasured garment slipped off the shoulders of Alejandro Valverde to Romain Feillu, they hid it well.

Now, the German is the standard-bearer for the race. Stefan Schumacher is not damaged goods in the same sense, but he’s definitely a little bruised.

He’s had a career of two parts. First he was an unremarkable rider with Telekom until dropping down to ride for the small German team, Lamonta. He then moved on to Shimano-Memory Corp.

In 2004 he tested positive for amphetamines but was later cleared by the German Cycling Federation. His mother, a doctor, had prescribed him a drug to treat allergies and related breathing difficulties and had checked the UCI’s list of banned substances and not found the drug, cathine.

After a successful year with Shimano, he joined Gerolsteiner, run by Hans-Michael Holzcer, a man who is outspoken on the subject of anti-doping. He’s since won the Amstel Gold Race and held the pink jersey in the Giro d’Italia.

Last autumn, he won a bronze medal in the World Championship road race in his home town of Stuttgart, in a week when the UCI put considerable pressure on Valverde.

After the championships Schumacher went out to celebrate at a nightclub and took a taxi home after a few drinks. When he got home he found his girlfriend was not home so took his car to search for her. It was a foolish move. He crashed into a fence and was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.

It was not glorious behaviour, but things were to get worse.

In January, Schumacher got wind of the fact it was about to be leaked that the blood test conducted by police had tested positive for amphetamines.

The World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules were changed in 2004 and amphetamines, like cocaine, are not banned if detected out of competition. As it was not a sporting anti-doping control, Schumacher was not subject to any sanction.

Schumacher was adamant he had absolutely not taken drugs but the incident was not great public relations, especially with Holzcer searching for a new sponsor for his team.

With Tom Boonen barred from the race by the organisers after testing positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition test in May, it highlights yet again the lack of joined up thinking.

A different country, a different rider, means different rules. Schumacher’s situation is very similar to Boonen’s, the only difference being it came to light during the off-season rather than on the eve of the Tour. One is at the Tour of Austria, keeping a low profile. The other is in the yellow jersey.

THE WEEK AHEAD

What is going to happen between now and the Pyrenees?

Thursday’s stage to Super-Besse is far from straightforward. The final climb is 11 kilometres long, enough to stretch the bunch out.

Schumacher is a decent enough climber to hang on, but it could be that Kim Kirchen reaches the summit faster and takes over the lead.

Cadel Evans won’t let any of his big rivals have any headway, but neither will he want to press matters. Eleven kilometres is not insignificant, but the second-category Super-Besse is not going to crack anyone unless they are having a bad day.

David Millar is still talking up his chances of assuming the yellow jersey but to do that, he will have to be at the very front, and he will have to open a gap on Kirchen. The pair of level on time but Kirchen has the edge because of his daily finishing positions.

It seems unlikely Millar can do it. He will need to be on a superb climbing day the like of which we have not seen from him since the 2003 Dauphine Libere, before his doping ban.

But this has been the most surprising opening week of the Tour for years, so who knows.

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: STAGE REPORTS

Stage four: Schumacher wins TT and takes race lead

Stage three: Dumoulin wins stage from break

Stage two: Hushovd wins chaotic sprint

Stage one: Valverde wins

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: NEWS

Millar: Still aiming for Tour yellow jersey [stage 4]

Who is Romain Feillu?

Cavendish disappointed with stage two result

Millar too close to Tour yellow jersey

Stage 2 preview: A sprint finish for Cavendish?

Millar happy after gains precious seconds in Plumelec

Valverde delighted with opening Tour stage win

Comment: Is Valverde’s win a good thing for the Tour?

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: PHOTOS

Stage four

Stage three

Stage two

Stage one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: GUIDE

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