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Evans takes yellow jersey after next-to-last stage, all but securing Tour

Cadel Evans seized the Tour de France leader’s yellow jersey after the penultimate stage on Saturday, all but securing the first victory by an Australian in cycling’s greatest race — and capping one of its most dramatic editions in years.

The 34-year-old veteran, a two-time runner-up, took the lead by overcoming a 57-second deficit to Andy Schleck of Luxembourg and a four-second gap behind his brother, Frank, in the time trial in and near Grenoble.

On the victor’s podium, a red-eyed Evans was choked up, holding back tears before hurling the winner’s bouquet into the crowd.

“I really can’t quite believe it right now,” said Evans. “I have been concentrating on one event for so long.”

Although there is one more stage, the leader after the time trial was certain to be the overall victor: Sunday’s finale on the Champs-Elysees in Paris tends to be a ceremonial ride because launching a successful attack on that flat last stage is virtually impossible.

This year’s edition of the 108-year-old race, with nail-biting tension through to the end, offered one of the most exciting finishes in years — and without a serious doping blight that marred past Tours.

The Schleck brothers, knowing they had lost, embraced after the finish line. Overall, Evans leads Andy Schleck by 1:34, and his older brother Frank Schleck by 2:30.

The 20th stage was won by Tony Martin of Germany. Evans finished second in the stage — seven seconds behind — and was 2:31 faster than Andy Schleck.

Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal finished the day 62nd, dropping the Victoria native back a spot to 18th overall.

The riders set off Saturday in reverse order of the standings. Andy Schleck had the benefit of riding last, and said beforehand that he’d have the added inspiration of wearing yellow.

By the first intermediate time check at the 15-kilometre mark, Evans had already erased 36 seconds of his deficit to Andy Schleck and was 34 seconds faster than the elder Schleck.

At the second, at 27.5 kilometres, Andy Schleck’s lead had vanished — Evans was 1:32 faster. The Luxembourg rider wasn’t even among the 10 fastest riders who had crossed that point.

Evans then kept gaining as the stage progressed to the finish.

The looming victory for Evans, the BMC team leader, capped what has been a stellar and methodical performance over the three-week race. Unlike defending champion Alberto Contador and other main contenders, Evans was spared crashes. His only big hiccup was mechanical troubles in Friday’s stage — but he recovered without any lost time.

Evans will have won the Tour without having won a stage. But his win attests to his pinpoint planning and clever pre-race preparation for the title that he has sought but narrowly missed for years.

“Today, we went through the process, like we had the plan every day — and the plan every day was A, B, C, D,” he said.

Evans has repeatedly been dogged by speculation that psychological toughness and a winner’s instinct was lacking — but showed a veteran’s skill at managing his effort over the three weeks to seize cycling’s highest prize.

“This is the victory of a complete rider,” said Tour director Christian Prudhomme. “Is the consecration of a career.”

Evans had been regarded as a perennial underachiever until he silenced his critics to become world champion two years ago. And he enjoyed a solid build-up to the Tour, racing less than usual so he would reach his peak there.

The parallels between Andy and Evans are considerable. They’re both two-time runners-up. They’ve both been second to Contador — Evans once and Schleck twice — and each know what it’s like to just barely miss out on victory. Evans was second to Contador by 23 seconds in 2007; Schleck was 39 seconds behind the Spaniard last year — two of the closest finishes in the 108-year history of the race.

The Schlecks — whichever one — were vying to be the first Luxembourg rider since Charly Gaul was the first and only from winner from that country to win, in 1958.

As second and third overall, they will be the first brothers to share the Tour’s winners podium on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.