Col du Tourmalet: Alberto Contador let rival Andy Schleck win the Tour de France’s showpiece stage at the top of the fog-covered Tourmalet on Thursday in the knowledge he had a firm grip on his third title.
The pair left the rest behind in the last ascent to the Pyrenees summit and embraced after crossing the line in the 174-km 17th stage.
Schleck’s second stage win in the Tour was sweet consolation for the Luxembourg rider, who faces the near-impossible task of trying to beat the defending champion in Saturday’s 52-km time trial.
Spaniard Contador, one of five men to have won the Tour, the Giro d’Italia and Tour of Spain, is set to go into the time trial with an eight-second advantage over Schleck and is the better of the two in the timed effort.
“I gave everything but he also attacked to show me he was feeling great and I could not drop him,” said Schleck, runner-up in last year’s race.
“At the end of the stage he did not really sprint, he showed great respect, it was important for me to win this stage.
“Eight seconds ahead of the time trial does not look good but you never know, it’s not over before Paris (in Sunday’s final stage),” Schleck told reporters.
Contador’s gesture had echoes of seven-times champion Lance Armstrong who, in a similar situation, often let his rivals enjoy the satisfaction of a stage victory.
“There’s gifts in this race,” said Armstrong who, for his final Tour, finished 17th, 4:12 behind.
Contador said: “I have not won a stage but the main goal is to win the Tour.
“Today it was a good opportunity to win one but if I look at the situation in the overall standings, it’s fine.
“Last year the situation was different. This year I had to ride more conservatively. What matters is not to attack but to wear the yellow jersey in Paris,” added Contador.
Last year the Spaniard had a point to prove in his Astana team because he was sharing the leadership with Armstrong, and attacking was his only way out.
“This year there was no necessity to attack. Maybe I’m getting old too,” Contador added with a smile.
Following a heatwave that sapped the peloton’s energy in the first two weeks of the Tour, temperatures dropped to eight degrees Celsius at the top of the Tourmalet after thunderstorms had rumbled through the mountains all night.
A flock of sheep ran through the peloton in the ascent to the Col du Soulor and a few puzzled riders zigzagged to avoid a crash.
They cut through thick fog in the tricky, 19-km descent from the Soulor with 2008 champion Carlos Sastre stuck on his own between the peloton and seven breakaway riders.
Sastre was reeled in 25-km from the line and the battle began.
Schleck’s Saxo Bank team brutally increased the pace as they took over Contador’s Astana colleagues in front of the bunch at the foot of the final climb.
His work done, Saxo Bank’s world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara pulled over on the side of the road, his face a mask of pain.
Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov and then Daniel Navarro were dropped and with 12-km left Contador was on his own.
Two kilometres later Schleck jumped away from the pack. Contador though was glued to his rear wheel and the Spaniard never let him get away as the duo, seemingly effortlessly, picked off the remnants of the breakaway.
The Spaniard tried to attack with just under 4-km left but Schleck hung on, raising his arms in celebration as he crossed the line.
Spain’s Samuel Sanchez retained third place overall despite crashing early in the stage. He is 3:32 behind Contador and Russian Denis Menchov occupies fourth, 3:53 off the pace.
Contador, Schleck and Armstrong were greeted by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who followed part of the stage in a race car.