CUNEO, Italy 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 where, 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.
The French anti-doping agency is controlling drug testing at this year's Tour. The Italian committee oversees doping in Italy and indicated that Sunday's tests were part of a pre-race agreement with the French authorities.
Spanish riders Moises Duenas Nevado and Manuel Beltran have been ejected for doping. Italy's Riccardo Ricco won two stages before he was removed for testing positive for the blood-booster EPO.
Pierre Bordry, the head of the French anti-doping agency, said his Chatenay-Malabry lab has been swamped by testing. He told The Associated Press on Monday that he is only now testing samples from a week ago.
That means results are still to come from the ninth stage, which was won by Ricco, and the 10th stage, which was won by Ricco teammate Leonardo Piepoli.
Piepoli has since been fired by his team for "violation of the team's ethical code." Bordry said Piepoli's blood parameters were suspicious when the lab carried out pre-Tour tests on July 3 and 4.
After the two mountain stages, riders get back on flat terrain before Saturday's 33-mile time trial.
Evans can afford more time losses in the Alps as long as they are to Sastre and Schleck, rather than Vande Velde or Menchov. Menchov was only seven seconds slower than Evans on the fourth stage, and Vande Velde was 10 seconds back.
Sastre, however, finished 1:16 behind Evans; Kohl was 1:20 slower; and Schleck was 1:47 down.
"What do I need before the final time trial?" Sastre asked. "Ten minutes (on Evans)."
Jonathan Vaughters, Vande Velde's team manager at Garmin Chipotle, is optimistic.
"He's usually better than the rest of the guys in the top six," Vaughters said.
Menchov is the only top-six rider who has won a major stage race the Spanish Vuelta in 2005 and '07. He won the white jersey as best young rider in 2003, the year Armstrong beat Jan Ullrich by 1:01.Last year, Evans lost to Alberto Contador of Spain by 23 seconds, and this year's race could be just as close.
Associated Press Writers Andrew Dampf and Jamey Keaten in Cuneo, Italy, contributed to this report.