Con­ta­dor steps up his chal­lenge of over­all leader

Spa­niard cuts deficit, cites Sh­leck ‘weak­ness’

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Jamey Keaten

MENDE, France — Al­berto Con­ta­dor sent a mes­sage Fri­day to Tour de France leader Andy Sch­leck: Here I come.

The two-time Tour cham­pion dropped the Lux­em­bourg rider on the steep fi­nal climb of the 12th stage, the Spa­niard’s first bold at­tack of the race gain­ing him cru­cial sec­onds in the ti­tle chase.

Joaquin Ro­driguez, a Spa­niard with the Ka­tusha team, got stagewin glory by edg­ing Con­ta­dor in a two-man sprint at the fin­ish of the 131-mile course from Bourg-dePeage to Mende.

Seven-time cham­pion Lance Arm- strong, who has ruled him­self out of con­tention in his fi­nal Tour, lost time to the leader for a third straight day — cross­ing in 57th place, 3:35 back of Ro­driguez. He’s 32nd over­all, 21:16 be­hind Sch­leck. Arm­strong didn’t speak to re­porters af­ter the stage.

Con­ta­dor was con­tent to cut 10 pre­cious sec­onds from his deficit to

Sch­leck and was 31 sec­onds be­hind af­ter the stage. Sa­muel Sanchez of Spain was a dis­tant third, 2 min­utes, 45 sec­onds.

The race has shaped up as a duel be­tween Con­ta­dor and Sch­leck, who are seem­ingly un­par­al­leled in the climbs — and the Pyre­nees await as the arena where their ri­valry will play out be­gin­ning Sun­day.

Sch­leck knows that Con­ta­dor is stronger in the time trial, and wants to have the biggest lead pos­si­ble be­fore the fi­nal race against the clock on the eve of the July 25 fin­ish on the Champs-El­y­sees in Paris.

Fri­day’s stage fin­ish was des­tined for drama. In the fi­nal miles, the pack scaled the La Croix Neuve pass, which as­cends nearly two miles at an av­er­age gra­di­ent of more than 10 per­cent.

Con­ta­dor and Ro­driguez burst out of the pack near the mid­point of that steep fi­nal climb, dust­ing Sch­leck and over­tak­ing sev­eral break­away rid­ers. Ro­driguez out­sprinted Con­ta­dor in the last few hun­dred yards to get his first stage win in his first Tour.

Both were given a time of 4 hours, 58 min­utes, 26 sec­onds, while Con­ta­dor’s As­tana team­mate Alexan­dre Vi­nok­ourov was third, four sec­onds back. Sch­leck, the Saxo Bank team leader, was fifth, while Sanchez crossed in sixth.

Vi­nok­ourov and three other break­away rid­ers were the first at the foot of the climb. Ini­tially, he and Be­larus rider Vasil Kiryienka slugged it out be­fore the Kazakh star rode A spec­ta­tor in a yel­low Citroen 2CV car waves as the pack — with Andy Sch­leck of Lux­em­bourg wear­ing the over­all leader’s yel­low jersey — passes dur­ing the 12th stage. out alone, seek­ing a stage win in his first Tour since be­ing kicked out of the 2007 race for blood dop­ing and serv­ing a two-year sus­pen­sion.

Then with just over a mile to go, Con­ta­dor caught Sch­leck off-guard by rac­ing out wide and mus­ter­ing a burst of speed. As the Spa­niard rose out of his sad­dle, his bike rock­ing side to side, Sch­leck couldn’t or wouldn’t match the ac­cel­er­a­tion, stay­ing seated and ped­al­ing in a steady rhythm.

“I saw that a rider came out and Andy didn’t re­spond,” Con­ta­dor said. “He’s a rather am­bi­tious rider, and that could be a symp­tom of weak­ness.”

Con­ta­dor and Ro­driguez quickly over­took Vi­nok­ourov and bat­tled it out to the end.

“I knew this was go­ing to be a re­ally tough climb,” Sch­leck said of La Croix Neuve. “I don’t like this climb, it doesn’t fit me. It’s short and steep and you have to be ex­plo­sive — not right for the kind of rider that I am.

“I’m happy I lost only 10 sec­onds in the end. I was not so sur­prised I couldn’t stay with him in this climb.”

Con­ta­dor had hoped to gain more time on Sch­leck, but was sat­is­fied to seize a men- tal edge.

“I like this climb a lot. I felt good. I at­tacked too late, and I didn’t know what state Andy was in,” Con­ta­dor said. “I was able to get a few sec­onds, it’s good — it shows I’m in form.

“I didn’t know whether to go for it or not, I was on Andy’s wheel and saw him look­ing weak for a moment and de­cided to go for it. It’s an im­por­tant psy­cho­log­i­cal blow.”

Sch­leck says he’s not wor­ried about los­ing time to Con­ta­dor.

“I know my best day will come in the Pyre­nees,” he said. “I’m ready to fight.”

Al­berto Con­ta­dor made up 10 sec­onds of time against over­all lead.

Bas Czerwinski AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Andy Sch­leck, mid­dle, and Al­berto Con­ta­dor, the sec­ond rider be­hind Sch­leck, speed down­hill dur­ing the 12th stage of the Tour de France. Sch­leck, the over­all leader, said he’s not wor­ried about los­ing time to Con­ta­dor on Fri­day. ‘I’m ready to fight,’ he said.

Christophe ena

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