Spain's Alberto Contador produced the time trial performance of his life to hang on to the Tour de France's yellow jersey after a thrilling penultimate 19th stage on Saturday.
American Levi Leipheimer won the 55.5km race against the clock to claim his first ever Tour stage win, but it was the battle going on behind the Discovery Channel rider that enthralled the race. Australian Cadel Evans began with a 1min 50sec deficit on overnight leader Contador, and despite slashing his deficit to the Spaniard the Predictor-Lotto rider missed out by just 23sec.
Contador finished fifth at 2:18 behind his teammate and is now virtually guaranteed victory following Sunday's 20th and final stage - a 146km race from Marcoussis to the Champs Elysees in Paris.
"I am only beginning to realise what is happening, and it's great for me," said Contador, who took over the race lead on Thursday following Michael Rasmussen's controversial eviction from the race by his Rabobank team.
Leipheimer's victory means he has virtually cemented third place, thus securing his first ever podium having finished in the top ten three times previously. After a mitigated campaign during which he was usurped as team leader by Contador, the Californian said he happily accepted his team-mate's anticipated triumph.
Leipheimer said he was surprised by his form on the day. "I didn't know in the morning I would be so good," said Leipheimer, who started third from last and went on to take the lead at all three intermediate points before finishing just eight seconds behind Evans overall. "Today I had the best legs of my life.
"I'm extremely happy to win today - it's been a lifelong dream for me to win a stage on the Tour de France. I didn't really think I could win. I started to hope only towards the end. I'm honestly very happy for Alberto."
If there is no yellow jersey battle on Sunday, Evans will finish as runner-up 23secs behind Contador to become Australia's highest ever finisher in the race.
The smallest ever margin between first and second place was the eight seconds' advantage for Greg LeMond over Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1989.
The Australian quipped that he had "already had words with Tom Boonen" about a plan to collaborate in a bid to claw back some bonus seconds to overhaul Contador. But the 30-year-old Australian seems to have accepted his runner-up place, admitting that his race was lost in the Pyrenees.
"Theoretically its possible (to overcome the deficit), but let's digest today's stage first!" he said. "I'm not too disappointed. All along my aim was to do better than last year, when I came fifth. This year I'm second but of course when you're so close to winning...
"I could be disappointed but what's it going to change? A lot of dirty words were said by me to my team managers, after the (15th) stage over the Peyresourde (mountain pass). People might understand why - I lost 55 seconds to Contador there."
For the yellow jersey contenders the final stage is usually the time to celebrate an end to three tough weeks of battles in the mountains and the race's two time trials.
The battle for the final stage, and a duel between Boonen and South African Robert Hunter for the points competition's green jersey, will likely dominate.
© AFP 2007
Also see: stage 19 live report.