Schleck holds seven-second Tour de France lead after Stage 16

JAUSIERS, France &

Frank Schleck of Luxembourg kept the yellow jersey in the Tour de France today, with riders pushing themselves through the Alps as cycling's showcase race left Italy and returned to France.

French rider Cyril Dessel won the 16th stage for his first stage victory in this race. He led a breakaway group of four riders to a downhill finish, completing the 98-mile trip from Cuneo, Italy.

"It makes me incredibly happy," said Dessel, who is no threat to Schleck at more than 32 minutes behind. "The tactic was to try to join a breakaway."

Schleck finished — minute, 28 seconds after Dessel, but didn't lose any time to his main title rivals. Bernhard Kohl of Austria is second overall, seven seconds behind, and Cadel Evans of Australia is third, eight seconds back. Carlos Sastre, a CSC teammate of Schleck, is fourth, 49 seconds behind.

"It was hard today. I wasn't able to attack," Schleck said. "I think everybody was pushing the limit."

Riders face a third ride in the Alps on Wednesday &

the hardest stage this year &

before two mostly flat rides followed by Saturday's crucial time trial. The race ends Sunday in Paris.

Schleck and Evans made time on another pre-race favorite, Denis Menchov of Russia. He slipped to fifth place, 1:13 back, after coming into the stage 38 seconds behind, in fourth place.

U.S. rider Christian Vande Velde lost even more ground, falling to sixth place, 3:15 behind. He started the ride in fifth place, 39 seconds behind Schleck.

The stage took riders along two climbs beyond classification: the 13-mile Lombarde pass and the 16-mile La Bonette-Restefond pass.

South Africa's John-Lee Augustyn was the first over the peak of La Bonette-Restefond, but he skidded off the road on a turn onto a rock-strewn mountainside. A spectator had to help him up to the road before he rejoined the race.

Augustyn's Barloworld team can't afford to lose him: Injuries and a doping case have reduced the squad to the minimum of five riders. He finished 5:27 behind Dessel.

The 17th stage Wednesday is a 131-mile ride featuring the Galibier and Croix de Fer passes and a finish up the L'Alpe d'Huez &

all three climbs are beyond classification.

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