Tour de France: Canny Contador uses know-how to conquer Schleck in Tour of tactics

Spaniard uses brain not brawn to claim yellow by just 39 seconds in one of the tightest ever races. Alasdair Fotheringham reports

In the year of Spanish sporting dominance, from the World Cup to Wimbledon, there should have been a feeling of inevitability when Spain's national anthem rang out over the Champs Elysées yesterday, celebrating Alberto Contador's victory.

Far from it. Even if Spain have taken five Tours de France in a row – and 10 in the last 20 years – and even if Contador has three out of the last four Tours in his palmares, his victory this month was anything but inevitable.

He used the phrases "my hardest day in the Tour" and "the worst I've ever felt" in his press confererence after Saturday's final time trial, which saw the Spaniard come within a whisker of losing the race outright.

Unable to shake off arch-rival Andy Schleck in the Alps or in the Pyrenees, by Saturday Contador – suffering from a fever and an upset stomach – was on his knees, fearing a knockout blow from the young Luxembourg rider. It didn't come. While Contador had a tiny margin of just 8sec to play with and Schleck pulled back seven of them a third of the way through the time trial, Schleck was unable to squeeze out the last ounce of energy.

Little by little, Contador clawed himself back into the game, although he was so close to exhaustion by the finish that he did not even realise he had crossed the line until he flashed past the line of photographers 20 yards later.

His winning margin in Paris was 39sec, the fourth-smallest since the Second World War and a testament to how hard-fought this Tour has been, arguably the most delicately balanced between two riders in its 107-year history.

Some argue that Contador won the Tour only because he refused to wait for Schleck when the latter's chain came off in a Pyrenees stage, but too much has been made of that. Contador took a 39sec advantage of Schleck's mishap and had that not happened one could argue Schleck would have won by 0.640sec, or one and half complete turns of his pedals. But this is too simplistic a way of looking at a 3,600km race.

Contador also had mechanical problems – as in the stage over the cobbles of northern France, when he raced for 30km with a back brake rubbing against his wheel – and nobody waited for him, as cycling's unwritten rules dictate the Spaniard should have done when Schleck was left stranded in the Pyrenees.

Why is so much fuss made of one incident when Contador failed to wait for Schleck and not of the other when Schleck zoomed off? Two reasons: firstly, because the TV cameras showed Schleck's chain coming off in glorious detail (when Contador suffered on the cobbles nobody seemed to know where he was) and, secondly, because Contador did not protest about his bad luck, whereas Schleck did – to the point where Contador was forced to issue an apology for going on.

Contador saw it this way: "You can't put the clock back. There have been numerous incidents in this year's Tour, not just that one. I've suffered hugely to win this, and I've won it by bluffing my way through the points when I've been feeling ill. Which days? I'm not saying. But this race has been so close not because Andy has been a lot better, but because I've been a lot worse."

Given the duel was so evenly matched physically, strategies decided the race – and that was where the more experienced Contador had the edge.

The Spaniard pretended he was in great shape at Morzine-Avoriaz, sending his team-mates to the front to keep the pace high, and Schleck, going against the orders of his manager, who wanted him to attack earlier, failed to go clear until the last kilometre.

Similarly, on the Tourmalet summit finish, Contador was having another bad day when the two went clear – but Luxemburger failed to realise that, with one more all-out charge, he would have sunk the Spaniard. Instead Schleck did all the work. "I kept on asking him to go ahead so I could attack him, but he wouldn't," Schleck said at the time. "He was too clever for me."

As a result, the top two places on the Paris podium were the same as last year, Contador in yellow and Schleck once again in the white of Best Young Rider. But the way the two got there this time could not have been more different from last July. For Schleck, as the double Tour winner Laurent Fignon put it, this has been a Tour of missed opportunities, repeated failures to realise when he had his man on the ropes. For Contador, it was a case of brilliantly dodging the bullets for three weeks.

It is a result that contradicts Lance Armstrong's oft-repeated theory that the strongest rider – physically – always wins the Tour. And this year's race, one of the most tactically intriguing in history, was all the better for it.

Final tour standings

Yellow Jersey: 1 A Contador (Sp) (91 hours 58 minutes 48 seconds); 2 A Schleck (Lux) at 39sec; 3 D Menchov (Rus) at 2:01; 4 S Sanchez (Sp) at 3:40; 5 J Van Den Broeck (Bel) at 6:54. Selected Others: 23 L Armstrong (US) at 39:20; 24 B Wiggins (GB) at 39:24; 67 G Thomas (GB) at 2hours 5sec.

Green Jersey: 1 A Petacchi (It) 243pts; 2 M Cavendish (GB) 232; 3 T Hushovd (Nor) 222; 4 J Rojas (Sp) 179; 5 R McEwen (Aus) 179.