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 on Thursday.
Schleck began the final climbing stage of this year’s race, a 174km ride from Pau to the Col du Tourmalet, with an eight-second deficit to Spain’s two-time winner in the race for the yellow jersey.
Schleck warned on Wednesday’s rest day he was confident of attacking Contador throughout the climb to the legendary summit and taking the yellow back from the Spaniard, who took the race lead after Schleck suffered a mechanical setback on Monday.
But despite repeated attacks in a bid to shake Contador off his wheel during the final 10km of the 18.6km slog to the fog-shrouded summit, Schleck finished with Contador sitting comfortably on his wheel at the finish line.
“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.”
It means 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.
On Wednesday, Schleck said he would need to go into the time trial with a lead of at least one minute on Contador, “but preferably more”.
Barring catastrophe for Contador between Friday and Sunday, he 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 haven’t won any stages but my objective was to win the Tour. Some years you win stages, others you don’t.”
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 Luxembourger with 3.9km remaining. When Schleck pulled level, he gave Contador an icy stare – which the Spaniard did not react to.
“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.
It is the second stage win of the race for Schleck, who also won the stage to Morzine-Avoriaz in the Alps.
Another Spaniard, Joaquin Rodriguez of Team Katusha, came over the finish line in third place 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 began the stage with a 13sec lead on Menchov, the Russian he is fighting for third place on the podium, but extended his lead by eight seconds.
Euskaltel rider Sanchez is still third but now further off the pace at 3:32. Menchov is fourth at 3:53 but will be favoured to close his gap to Sanchez in the final time trial.
Completing the top five overall is Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck, who finished ninth on the stage at 1:48 to sit fifth at 5:27 behind, with a 1:14 lead on sixth-placed Dutchman Robert Gesink.
One of the big losers of the day was American Levi Leipheimer, who finished outside the stage’s top 15 and out of the top ten in the general classification.
STAGE 17 RESULTS
1 Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 5:03:29
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Astana
3 Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha 0:01:18
4 Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin – Transitions 0:01:27
5 Samuel Sánchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel – Euskadi 0:01:32
6 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 0:01:40
7 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank
8 Christopher Horner (USA) Team Radioshack 0:01:45
9 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:01:48
10 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas-Doimo 0:02:14
11 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini 0:03:00
12 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:03:26
13 Andreas Klöden (Ger) Team Radioshack 0:03:30
14 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:03:35
15 Kanstantsin Siutsou (Blr) Team HTC – Columbia 0:03:44
16 Steve Morabito (Swi) BMC Racing Team 0:03:58
17 Lance Armstrong (USA) Team Radioshack 0:04:12
18 Carlos Barredo Llamazales (Spa) Quick Step 0:04:16
19 Vasili Kiryienka (Blr) Caisse d’Epargne 0:04:27
20 Luis León Sánchez Gil (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne
GC after stage 17
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Astana 83:32:39
2 Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 0:00:08
3 Samuel Sánchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel – Euskadi 0:03:32
4 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 0:03:53
5 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:05:27
6 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 0:06:41
7 Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha 0:07:03
8 Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin – Transitions 0:09:18
9 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas-Doimo 0:10:12
10 Christopher Horner (USA) Team Radioshack 0:10:37
11 Luis León Sánchez Gil (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne 0:12:46
12 Ruben Plaza Molina (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne 0:13:01
13 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Team Radioshack 0:14:24
14 Andreas Klöden (Ger) Team Radioshack 0:14:44
15 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:16:00
16 Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 0:17:57
17 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:17:59
18 Thomas Löfkvist (Swe) Sky Professional Cycling Team 0:18:30
19 Kevin De Weert (Bel) Quick Step 0:20:03
20 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:25:23