Contador keeps slim advantage over Schleck
Defending champion shadows stage winner during last climb
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.”