Con­ta­dor keeps slim ad­van­tage over Sch­leck

De­fend­ing cham­pion shad­ows stage win­ner dur­ing last climb

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Suzanne Hal­libur­ton

LA MONGIE, France — Andy Sch­leck and Al­berto Con­ta­dor rode for more than five hours on Thurs­day. They crossed three Pyre­nean moun­tain­tops, per­se­ver­ing through dense fog and chilly rain show­ers. They even dodged a flock of sheep and sev­eral par­tially-clothed fans streak­ing next to them.

Yet by the end of stage 17 — the fi­nal moun­tain out­ing in the Tour de France — nei­ther could shake each other.

And be­cause of the tight­ness of the stage and the near-equal abil­i­ties of the two rid­ers, this Tour prob­a­bly will be one of the clos­est in his­tory as it winds down to its Sun­day fin­ish.

Sch­leck won Thurs­day’s stage — his sec­ond of the Tour — but still was eight sec­onds be--

hind Con­ta­dor, the de­fend­ing cham­pion, in the race for the yel­low jersey. There are two stages left be­fore Sun­day’s cer­e­mo­nial grand fi­nale in Paris. But the only real chance to gain time is Satur­day’s time trial.

“I still want to win the Tour,” Sch­leck said. “Eight sec­onds is noth­ing.”

But eight sec­onds was ev­ery­thing on the way up the daunt­ing Tour­malet, a slope so steep and with roads so nar­row, it has been used as a fin­ish only one other time since the Pyre­nees stops were added to the Tour a cen­tury ago.

Sch­leck at­tacked with six miles to go, but he couldn’t shake Con­ta­dor, his yel­low shadow. Briefly, Con­ta­dor surged ahead of Sch­leck with about two miles left.

“It was re­ally a ‘Hey, I’m here,’ ” Con­ta­dor said of his at­tack. “I wanted to show him I have legs.”

Con­ta­dor didn’t con­test the fi­nal me­ters.

“It was easy for me,” Con­ta­dor said. “I just had to watch him (on the fi­nal climb). The stage vic­tory wasn’t im­por­tant.”

Lance Arm­strong fin­ished 17th, which al­lowed him to jump to 23rd over­all. He stayed with Con­ta­dor and Sch­leck un­til the base of the Tour­malet. Chris Horner, Arm­strong’s team­mate on Ra­dioShack, was eighth. He’s now 10th over­all, 10:37 be­hind Con­ta­dor, and is the high­es­tranked Amer­i­can.

The Tour con­tin­ues to­day with a some­what-flat, 120-mile stage from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux. If the sprint­ers have any lift to their legs at all af­ter an ex­haust­ing four days in the Pyre­nees, one will win.

Over­all, the clos­est Tour was in 1989, when Greg LeMond beat Lau­rent Fignon by eight sec­onds. LeMond won on the fi­nal day, which ended with a short time trial, as op­posed to a sprint fin­ish on the Champs El­y­sees that con­cludes most Tours.

The next-clos­est Tour fin­ish was in 2007, when Con­ta­dor won his first Tour by 23 sec­onds over Cadel Evans. Over­all, there have been six tours de­cided by less than a minute.

Con­ta­dor won last year’s time trial, edg­ing world cham­pion Fabian Can­cel­lara. He beat Sch­leck by 1:45.

Sch­leck has worked on his time-tri­al­ing abil­ity, but he’s still not on par with Con­ta­dor. He fin­ished 42 sec­onds be­hind Con­ta­dor in the open­ing, 5.6mile pro­logue on July 3.

Still, Sch­leck was hope­ful for Satur­day, as was Bjarne Riis, his team di­rec­tor.

“Nor­mally, it would be fin­ished,” Riis said. “But noth­ing will be fin­ished un­til Paris.”

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