GRENOBLE, France (AP) — Cadel Evans seized the Tour de France yellow jersey in the next-to-last stage Saturday, all but giving Australia its first victory in cycling's showpiece event and capping one of the most dramatic races in years.
The two-time runner-up took the overall lead by overcoming a 57-second deficit to Andy Schleck of Luxembourg in the time trial.
A red-eyed Evans choked up on the victory podium, holding back tears before hurling the winner's bouquet into the crowd.
"I really can't quite believe it right now," the 34-year-old Aussie said. "I have been concentrating on one event for so long."
Although there is one more stage — Sunday's ceremonial finish along the Champs-Elysees in Paris — the leader after the time trial is almost certain to be the winner. Launching a successful attack during that flat ride is virtually impossible.
This year's edition of the 108-year-old race was tense all the way — a riveting finish and without a serious doping blight that marred past Tours.
The Schleck brothers, knowing they had lost, embraced after the finish line of the 26-mile time trial. Evans leads Andy Schleck by 1:34, and 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.
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 9.3-mile 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 17.1 miles, 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, culminated a stellar and methodical three weeks of riding. Unlike defending champion Alberto Contador and other main contenders, Evans was spared crashes. His only real problem was mechanical trouble Friday, but he recovered without any lost time.
Evans will have won the Tour without having won a stage. But his triumph attests to his diligent preparation as he eyed a title he has 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' psychological toughness had been questioned, but he showed a veteran's skill and savvy to take cycling's greatest prize.
"This is the victory of a complete rider," Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. "Is the consecration of a career."
Evans had been regarded as a perennial underachiever until he became a world champion two years ago. And he enjoyed a solid build-up to the Tour, racing less than usual so he would peak at the right moment.
The parallels between Andy Schleck and Evans are considerable. Both are two-time runners-up. and both have been second to Contador — Evans once and Schleck twice. Both also know what it's like to just 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 race history.
The Schlecks — whichever one — were vying to be the first from Luxembourg to capture the Tour since Charly Gaul became the country's only winner in 1958.
As second and third overall, they will be the first brothers to share the Tour's winners podium on the Champs-Elysees.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.