Tour de France: Tour de force

FOR the first 6km of the head-to-head between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, to decide the winner of the Tour de France, it hung tantalisingly in the balance.

An unofficial time check at 2km put the best two riders in this year's race equal on time, with Contador then reported to be six seconds down on Schleck after 6km. This was then revised to two seconds, but it was enough to have Schleck fans thinking the impossible: that the Luxembourger would overturn the eight-second deficit on Contador, a far stronger time trialist, to claim victory in Paris today.

Over the entire 52km, though, Contador's strength saw him gradually pull ahead of Schleck, who, after three weeks' racing, cut an alarmingly gaunt figure, his ribs protruding through his white, "best young rider", jersey.

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At the finish, Contador - who, like all the later starters, had to contend with a strengthening headwind - crossed the line 35th on the stage as the world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara won the stage.

But it was the gap between Contador and Schleck that counted, and the Spaniard was 31 seconds faster, to increase his overall lead to 39 seconds.

Thirty-nine seconds is no arbitrary margin - it is laden with significance, being the exact time that Schleck conceded to Contador on stage 15, when he was forced to stop on the climb of the Port de Bales after shipping his chain.

Contador dissolved in tears at the finish, after what he admitted was a "very, very difficult" race. He is set to be crowned winner today in Paris, for the third time, but this one, he admitted, "is my most emotional victory" after the toughest battle of his career against a younger opponent who is set to challenge him for years to come.

Rarely are Tours won by less than a minute, but there is next to no chance of the deficit between Contador and Schleck altering in the course of today's final 102.5km stage from Longjumeau to Paris for the traditional finish on the Champs-lyses, since etiquette dictates that, while the sprinters fight it out for the stage, the overall standings stay as they are.

Etiquette has been a recurring theme of this Tour, from the decision to "neutralise" the second stage, after numerous riders - including Schleck - crashed heavily on a slippy descent in the Ardennes, to Contador's decision to continue after Schleck's problem with his chain in the Pyrenees.

For Schleck, it is a case of what might have been. "I've no regrets," he said last night, "maybe later I'll think of some things."

While the battle between Contador and Schleck has been one of the most exciting for some years, for the British squad, Team Sky, it has been a Tour of disappointment. "Sky, noir c'est noir," read the headline in yesterday's Le Figaro, and the article opened with a play on the "sky is the limit" phrase - this Tour has demonstrated Team Sky does, for the moment, have a limit.

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They came to the Tour with the aim of supporting Bradley Wiggins' challenge for the podium, after going so close last year with fourth. But when the Englishman fell short in the mountains, where he simply wasn't able to follow the favourites, they had nowhere else to go - no plan B, as some critics have claimed - though it's also true that they suffered bad luck, losing Simon Gerrans to a broken arm and with their Norwegian star, Edvald Boasson Hagen, below par after an injury-blighted build-up.

The highlight was the performance of Geraint Thomas, the Welshman previously best known for his gold medal in the team pursuit at the Beijing Olympics. Thomas was a revelation, finishing fifth in the prologue time trial, then third on the cobbled stage three, to sit second overall for most of the first week.

Wiggins finished ninth in the time trial, one place ahead of Thomas. "I'm delighted to finish the way I have," he said.

Cycling Tour de France

Tour de France Cycling

Stage 19: Bordeuz-Pauillac (52km TT)

1. Fabian Cancellara 1h 00m 56s

2. Tony Martin +17"

3. Bert Grabsch +1'48"

Overall leaders

1. Alberto Contador 89h 16m 27s

2. Andy Schleck +39"

3. Denis Menchov +2'01"


23. Lance Armstrong +39'20"

24. Bradley Wiggins +39'24"

158. David Millar +3h56'46"

Green jersey (Points/sprinter)

1. Alessandro Petacchi 213 points

2. Thor Hushovd 203

3. Mark Cavendish 197

King of the mountains

1. Anthony Charteau 143 points

2. Christophe Moreau 128

3. Andy Schleck 116

White jersey (Best young rider)

1. Andy Schleck 89h17'06"

2. Robert Gesink +08'52"

3. Roman Kreuziger +11'15"


1. Team Radioshack 267h55'00"

2. Caisse D'Epargne +09'15"

3. Rabobank +27'49"

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