Spaniard Alberto Contador took a huge step towards a third yellow jersey triumph after matching a series of attacks from Andy Schleck on the Tour de France 17th stage Thursday.
Schleck began the final climbing stage of this year's race, a 174km ride from Pau to the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, with an eight-second deficit to Spain's two-time winner in the race for the yellow jersey. Despite staying faithful to his promise of attacking Contador throughout the 18.6km slog to the summit of the fog-shrouded Tourmalet, stage winner Schleck finished with Contador sitting comfortably on his wheel.
"I gave it everything today, I tried to attack, I changed rhythm several times to try and drop him and I just couldn't," said Schleck, who applauded Contador's gentlemanly conduct at the end. "In the end I have to say respect to Alberto because he didn't sprint (for the finish) at the end."
Astana team leader Contador will retain his eight-second lead over the Saxo Bank climbing specialist ahead of Friday's 18th stage, which is likely to
finish in a bunch sprint. Schleck's last chance to overhaul Contador would be in Saturday's penultimate stage time trial over a 52km-long flat course, a discipline in which the Spaniard has a far better record. Barring catastrophe for Contador between Friday and Sunday, and despite Schleck's insistence he will fight to the end, the Spaniard will claim his third yellow jersey after victories in 2007 and 2009.
"There's still some stages left but let's say today it was an important stepping stone (towards the yellow jersey)," said Contador, who played down the fact he has not won any stages this year.
"I didn't have to win stages early in the race like I did last year, even though I was feeling strong. The most important thing was to be strong in the third week when the Tour was going to be decided."
Although Schleck attacked Contador first, at the 10km to go mark, then several times after that the Spaniard made his own bid to drop the Luxemburger with 3.9km remaining. When Schleck pulled level, he gave Contador an icy stare -- which the Spaniard did not react to.
"Everybody talks about the look, but I've got to look somewhere. I'm battling with Contador, I look him in the eyes," added Schleck. "When I came back to him, I looked at him and saw he was suffering too and that gave me a bit more confidence."
"I tried to attack him but Andy's reaction showed me he was strong," added Contador. "But the whole time I was really concentrated, and felt pretty confident. Today I had great legs."
In 2008 Contador did not compete as he turned his attention to the Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain -- both of which he won. Schleck meanwhile had to be content with his second stage win of the race after he beat Contador by 10secs at Morzine-Avoriaz in the Alps.
"I couldn't drop him but I'm really happy to have won the stage," added Schleck, who despite his inferior record in time trials has not given up hope of overhauling Contador on Saturday.
Another Spaniard, Joaquin Rodriguez of Team Katusha, was third at 1min 18sec, with Canadian Ryder Hesjedal fourth at 1:27, Spaniard Samuel Sanchez fifth at 1:32 and Denis Menchov sixth at 1:40. Sanchez increased his 13sec lead over podium rival Menchov to 21sec, however the Russian believes his superior time trialling will let him leapfrog the little Olympic champion.
"I'm satisifed with the way things went today. It's a pity I lost a little bit of time to Sanchez, but 21secs is a gap I can easily make up in the time trial on Saturday," said the Rabobank rider, who also finished third in 2008.
© AFP 2010
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