Madrid: Spain`s controversial three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador grabbed the overall lead in the Tour of Catalonia on Wednesday after claiming the grueling third stage in an epic finish.
Contador, who just weeks ago was cleared by the Spanish cycling federation over his positive test in last year`s Tour de France, completed the mountainous 189.4km race from La Vall d`en Bas in Spain to the Vallnord ski resort in Andorra in four hours, 45 minutes and eight seconds.
The Saxo Bank rider pulled away on the final hill climb just a few kilometres from the finish, chased by American Levi Leipheimer of Radioshack and Italy`s Michele Scarponi of the Lampre team.
But the Spaniard held on to win by 23 seconds over Scarponi in second followed by Leipheimer.
The win propelled him to the top of the overall standings, replacing Latvia`s Gatis Smukulis of HTC-Highroad, with a lead of 23 seconds over Leipheimer and Scarponi.
"I was not expecting to have such a lead," Contador said afterwards,
"I`m very happy because it was a difficult climb. With five kilometres to go there were still 50 riders and I knew that that was the hardest part, so I attacked. Then Leipheimer came back, and I attacked again until I reached the finish line."
The 28-year-old is due to learn this week whether the International Cycling Union intends to appeal the Spanish decision clearing him of doping.
He tested positive for a miniscule amount of the banned muscle-building substance clenbuterol during last July`s Tour de France but the Spanish federation accepted the rider`s claim that he had eaten drug-contaminated meat and was not negligent.
Contador acknowledged Wednesday that it was difficult to race with the case on his mind.
"It`s not the best conditions, but I`m focusing on myself, on my bike and on the road, because the rest does not depend on me," he said.
"I try to focus on the race and for the rest I have confidence in the people around me. It`s certainly not as if nothing has happened, I know that, but I?m handling things pretty well."
Saxo Bank sporting director Dan Frost saluted Contador`s stage win.
"The stage win was simply the icing on the cake after a perfect team effort on a very demanding mountain stage," said Frost.
"First, Andre, Benjamin and Volodymir put huge pressure on the peloton in the flat terrain and then Hernandez, then Daniel and finally Chris was pacing the field to an extent where no one was able to follow Alberto when he made his move on the final part of the uphill finish.”
"Now, it`s going to be difficult to take the jersey away from us but we have to work hard again in the next few days in order to bring home the overall win."