Photo: Yuzuru Sunada
It should hardly come as a surprise that the legendary climbs of the Tour de France's mountain stages will be decisive for the yellow jersey winner. But for Australian Cadel Evans, Sunday's 15th stage was just as treacherous to his campaign as the steep ramps of the Plateau de Beille or Alpe de Huez.
Evans came through the mainly flat but wind-buffeted 193 km stage from Limoux to Montpellier to retain third place overall 17sec behind Frank Schleck and 2min 06sec behind Frenchman Thomas Voeckler. Andy Schleck is fourth at 2:15 and Spain's reigning three-time champion Alberto Contador is seventh at 4:00.
But two years after a similar kind of stage cost Contador 41sec, Evans was thankful for his BMC team's efforts to keep him up the front and out of trouble. Their tactics might not have pleased the sprinters' teams, but with three consecutive stages in the Alps beginning Wednesday Evans said it was imperative to stay near the front.
"It's a sort of a conflict in the race where the sprinters want to be in the first position, but we have to be in the front and sometimes we have to be in their way at 10 or five kilometers to go," Evans said. "Of course they don't like that, but we can lose the race at five kilometers because we have to at least be at three kilometers if something happens in the peloton."
Saxo Bank leader Contador added: "It might have looked like a quiet day on television but it was a difficult day for everyone on the team. There was a lot of tension in the field and wind gusts measuring 70 km/h."
Race rules dictate that riders involved in incidents not of their making inside the final three kilometers are credited with the same time as the group they were in at the time.
On Sunday, the only incident worthy of note in the finale was Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert's attack in a bid to win the stage and close his gap to Mark Cavendish in the green jersey competition.
Cavendish's Tasmanian teammate Matt Goss said Gilbert, a thorn in the Isle of Man sprinter's side since winning stage one, had to be brought to heel.
"Gilbert went, and you've got to worry," said Goss. "You see how strong and how good he is. We certainly had to make sure we got him back."
HTC-Highroad reeled the Omega-Pharma rider in and with just over 200 meters to race Cavendish emerged from the wheel of Australian lead-out man Mark Renshaw to go on and beat American Tyler Farrar.
Farrar's lead-out man Julian Dean, of New Zealander, said he got stuck behind HTC.
"There was nothing we could do today," said Dean. "HTC were right on their game."
Cavendish now has four stage wins this year, 19 overall and one hand on the green jersey that he has twice narrowly missed.
"It wasn't really difficult because of the wind, it's just the fact you're fighting with everybody the whole day," said Cavendish, who now has a lead of 37 and 71 points respectively on Spaniard Jose Joaquin Rojas and Gilbert.
"We're fighting with Cadel (Evans), with the Schlecks (Andy and Frank), with (Ivan) Basso - it's pretty stressful, but that shows how important it is for those guys to keep fighting every day."
Yellow jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler, meanwhile, was quick to deflate the hosts' hopes of seeing a first French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
"It's not a question of not wanting to. Everybody would like to win the Tour. Since Bernard Hinault we're waiting for a winner and since Richard Virenque a podium finisher," he said.
"I'll give it everything, but I'm not going to lie and say I can win it. I really believe I have zero chance of winning the Tour de France."