Contador set to win toughest Tour yet
Alberto Contador admitted to being pushed to his absolute limits on his way to virtually securing a third yellow jersey triumph on the Tour de France Sunday.
"This year there were times when I wasn't exactly on top form, today included. The race this year was particularly hard," said Contador, who came close to losing his yellow jersey to Andy Schleck in Saturday's final time trial.
Spain's two-time champion went into the penultimate stage time trial with only an eight-second lead on key rival Andy Schleck.
And there was drama right to the wire as Schleck threatened to close his deficit early on before he ran out of juice and Contador came into his own in the latter half of the flat 52km-long course.
In 2009 Contador beat Swiss Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara by three seconds in the final time trial to claim the stage, and rubber-stamp his second yellow jersey triumph.
And despite finishing only 35th, at 5min 43sec behind a victorious Cancellara here Saturday, it was enough to keep Schleck at 31secs adrift and heading for a second successive runner-up place.
Contador will now go into Sunday's final stage to Paris, which is not usually contended by the yellow jersey rivals, with a 39secs lead on the Luxembourger.
Ironically, it is the exact figure Schleck lost to Contador on stage 15 when the Spaniard counter-attacked him moments before he suffered an untimely mechanical problem with his gears.
Contador admitted he feared for his yellow jersey throughout the 19th stage race against the clock.
"To be honest, I got some information that said I was five seconds behind Andy, and I started to panic," added the Spaniard. "I started to think, 'Oh my God, this is it, it's over'. And I stayed that way until the finish line really."
With Schleck pushing him so close, Contador knows he is in for a battle in the future. But the Spaniard attempted to put that in perspective by claiming he was not as good as he should have been.
"I know Andy well, and he's a great rider. He's going to be a major rival for a long time," said Contador. "But I think this year I wasn't exactly at my best. Things eventually went well for me today but last night, for example, I didn't sleep well and I also had a stomach ache."
Contador also began the race with a cold, which forced him out of the Spanish time trial championships, and from then on it was about managing the dozens of little details that go into fighting for the race's yellow jersey.
"A few days before the Tour I was on antibiotics, and I think this affected my form for the first week," he added. "From a mental point of view it was very complicated. I had to stay focused all the time, especially on the climbing stages.
"Our team perhaps wasn't the strongest but we really supported each other. If you think about the efforts I had to make and the riders I had to follow on the climbs.... this was the real key to my victory."
As well as his climbing and time trialling skills, Contador is also known for his ability to recuperate -- a crucial ingredient in long stage races.
However it appears the other key to the 27-year-old Spaniard's win was his ability to handle the pressure, both from rivals and from within.
"I think it's the dream of any rider when you're small and you start cycling and you get on your bike," he added. "From that moment you want to win the Tour. It's the most beautiful race in the world but what goes with that is permanent tension and pressure.
"You feel the pressure from outside and from within yourself. You can't imagine how relieved I am."
I'll be back to win in 2011, says Schleck
Andy Schleck vows he'll be back
Andy Schleck has promised to return to the Tour de France next year and succeed Alberto Contador as yellow jersey champion.
Luxembourg all-rounder Schleck will go into Sunday's 20th and final stage with a 39sec deficit to Contador after starting the penultimate stage time trial eight seconds behind.
Schleck lost nearly two minutes (1:45) to Contador in the final time trial of last year's race when he eventually finished runner-up at 4min 11sec adrift. But the 25-year-old showed he has reduced his deficit to the Spaniard in the all-important discipline, in which he ceded only 31secs on Saturday.
As Contador savours an impending third Tour victory, adding to 2008 triumphs in the Tour of Spain and Giro d'Italia, the 25-year-old Luxembourger is already making plans for 2011.
"I've always said I've progressed (in the time trial) but to beat Alberto is not easy. I gave it my all, and I just couldn't beat him," said Schleck, who was more than Contador's equal in the mountain stages.
"I've won two stages here, so for that I'm happy. I will come back next year to win. He is not unbeatable."
Schleck took the yellow jersey from Australia's Cadel Evans, also a two-time runner-up, on stage nine to Morzine-Avoriaz, the first stage in the high mountains.
However Contador reduced an eventual 41sec deficit to the Luxembourger on stage 12 to Mende, when he attacked on the steep 'Jalabert' climb to cut the gap to just 31sec.
In what was arguably one of the key moments of the race, Contador regained command when he countered a Schleck attack seconds before the Luxembourger's chain came off his gears.
Contador raced ahead, eventually finishing 39secs ahead of Schleck to leave him in second overall at eight seconds.
The gap did not change in the stages that followed, leaving Schleck with the obligation of attacking Contador on the final stage in the mountains.
On Thursday's stage 17 to the Col du Tourmalet, Schleck could not shake Contador off his tail as he raced through the rain and fog to claim his second stage success of this year's race.
It all came down to the final time trial, an exercise in which Schleck is said to have made improvements in the past year.
And despite reducing his virtual deficit to two seconds in the early stages, Contador came into his own in the second half of the race to increase his lead over the Luxembourger.
"I rode the first 40 kilometres as fast as I could and so I think I lost most of my time in the final kilometres," added Schleck. "I always said I would give it everything till the end."
Schleck admitted his only regret was his prologue performance in Rotterdam.
As Contador limited his time losses by finishing in sixth and 27secs behind Fabian Cancellara, Schleck finished way down in 122nd place at 1:09 behind his Swiss teammate.
"The Tour last three weeks, and you have to be good every day," added Schleck. "In the mountains I think we were about the same level. I messed up the prologue. In the Tour, it's the final result that counts and he's beaten me by 39 seconds."
Charteau is crowned Tour's king of the mountains
Anthony Charteau, king of the mountains in 2010
Anthony Charteau was rewarded for his consistent racing on the Tour de France climbing stages with the polka dot jersey for the race's best climber on Thursday.
Charteau, who races for the Bbox-Bouygues team, went into the final climbing stage of this year's race, a 174km ride from Pau to the Col du Tourmalet, with a 15-point lead on fellow Frenchman Christophe Moreau.
With four climbs featuring on stage 17, and plenty of points to pick up, it was Moreau's last chance for glory on what is his final Tour de France.
However, the Caisse d'Epargne team veteran's chances were hampered by an early breakaway that forged ahead to gobble up the points available on the race's first three climbs.
Moreau would have had to finish seventh on the stage, and ahead of Charteau, to claim the 16 points at the finish line that would allow him to snatch the polka dot jersey on the final day in the mountains.
But early on the 18.6km ascent to the Col du Tourmalet, which has staged only one finish on the race, Moreau was one of several riders quickly dropped as the pace of the leaders' teams picked up.
He eventually finished 22nd at 4min 36sec behind stage winner Andy Schleck, who came over the finish line with race leader Alberto Contador having failed to close his eight-second deficit to the Spaniard.
Charteau admitted he was soaking up his eventual win well before the summit.
"I knew when Christophe began to struggle early on the climb (to Tourmalet) that my victory was virtually assured," said Charteau, who finished the stage in 27th over a minute behind Moreau.
"That allowed me to just ride up to the summit savouring my win. It was quite an experience, with all the fans at the roadside.
"I deliberately rode the final few kilometres by myself so I could take it all in. It was extraordinary. When I came round the final bend, the fans waiting there did a big 'Ola' for me. That's something you don't get a lot when you're racing."
Charteau's feat is another huge boost for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau's Bbox-Bouygues team as they continue their search for a new sponsor. Earlier this week French champion Thomas Voeckler and Pierrick Fedrigo boosted that campaign by winning a stage each in the Pyrenees.
© AFP 2010