Spain's Freire wins stage 14 of Tour
Oscar Freire closed in on the sprint title at the Tour de France by winning Saturday's 14th stage, while Australia's Cadel Evans kept the yellow jersey in the doping-battered race.
The Spaniard prevailed in a mass sprint at the end of a hot, 194.6-kilometre ride from Nimes to Digne-les-Bains, a stage that featured small climbs in the last day before three punishing Alpine stages.
The race has been marred this year by three riders that were kicked out for doping violations — notably young Italian star Riccardo Ricco, winner of two stages this year.
Freire, a 32-year-old Rabobank rider, collected his fourth Tour stage victory and his first this year with a time of four hours, 13 minutes, 8 seconds.
He cemented his hold on the green jersey — given to the Tour's best sprinter — which had come under pressure from Mark Cavendish, who won the last two stages in sprints. But the British rider fell behind in the final climb up the L'Orme pass and missed out on the final sprint.
Evans, the 31-year-old leader of the Silence Lotto team, held the overall lead for a fifth day. He defended a one-second lead over Frank Schleck of Luxembourg and a 38-second gap on American rider Christian Vande Velde. The Alps are likely to shake up the leader board.
"I have to play a smart race," said Evans. "I have to use my head."
The latest doping-related blow hit the sport Saturday, when Barloworld said it will withdraw its cycling sponsorship after the race ends July 27.
The South African industrial conglomerate cited the "negative impact" on its brand of having one of its riders expelled from the Tour for doping. Moises Duenas Nevado of Spain tested positive for the banned blood-booster EPO this week.
In a statement Saturday, Barloworld said its team has "zero tolerance" on doping.
The race moves into Italy on Sunday, taking a 183-kilometre run from Embrun, France, to Prato Nevoso, Italy. The stage features the Agnel pass, a climb so tough it defies classification in cycling's ranking system, and an uphill finish.