Tour de France: Schleck and Contador can't be separated on Tourmalet climb

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The Independent Online

Andy Schleck won the battle but Alberto Contador went one step closer to winning the war at the Tour de France today.

An epic duel for the Tour race leader's yellow jersey on the Col du Tourmalet saw Contador defend pole position in the race to Paris.



With clouds shrouding the fabled Pyrenean peak, which was the end of the 174-kilometre 17th stage from Pau, Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) was unable to shake off the challenge of Contador (Astana), finishing half a bike wheel ahead of the two-time champion at the summit.



Contador held an eight-second advantage at the start of the day after seizing the maillot jaune from Schleck, the 2009 runner-up, by taking advantage of his rival's mechanical problem on Monday's 15th stage.



The duo were evenly matched as they fought up the steep incline to the summit, with Schleck emerging from the gloom to take his second stage victory on the 97th Tour, but Contador was right behind him to stay in the lead with three days of racing remaining.

The category four climb of Cote de Renoir, and the category one climbs of the 9.3km Col de Marie-Blanque and the 11.9km Col du Solour were merely the hors d'oeuvres for what was to come.

A seven-man escape was allowed to prosper, but, two-thirds of the way up the 18.6km hors categorie (beyond category) Col du Tourmalet, Contador and Schleck resumed their personal battle, one which was set to decide the winner of the 97th Tour.



On yesterday's rest day, Schleck conceded he would need to reclaim the yellow jersey today in order to win the overall title on Sunday.



He was able to win the stage, but his hopes of standing atop the podium in Paris now appear to be slim, with Contador retaining his eight-second lead.



Tomorrow's 198km 18th stage from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux is set to be one for the sprinters, with one final twist possible in the overall race in Saturday's 52km time-trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac.



However, Contador is the more competent against the clock and now appears set to win a third Tour title in four years.

With French president Nicolas Sarkozy watching on, the 97th Tour's queen stage was worthy of the name.

A sedate start reached a crescendo on the Col du Tourmalet, but not before the peloton was infiltrated by a flock of sheep darting out of the fog on the category one Col du Solour ascent.



While the sheep traversed the incline, the peloton managed to avoid them.



The descent was made treacherous by the fog and the wet, but the escapees' margin was cut nonetheless.



Schleck's Team Saxo Bank squad were out of their saddles, hunting down the escapees.



The riders were already strewn along the vicious ascent, with Contador sitting on Schleck's rear wheel.



The pace was relentless, with Contador left alone as his Astana team-mates floundered, while the loan remaining escapee Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) saw his advantage cut all the time.



With 10km remaining, Schleck and Contador accelerated away, with Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) attempting to follow.



The duo swept past the remnants of the day's break and soon had Kolobnev in their sights through the mist.



Schleck put in another burst with 9km to go and the duo went past Kolobnev 500m later.



The duo staked out the climb from opposite sides earlier this year, but now they were racing up to the finish.



It was the finale the Tour, celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first foray into the Pyrenees, wanted.



Schleck kept a high tempo and attempted to shake off Contador, but the Spaniard remained on his wheel.



The Luxembourg rider continually looked over his right shoulder, eye-balling Contador to look for any weakness in his rival.



Metres inside the final 4km, Contador went in front, but Schleck went with the sudden acceleration and appeared to goad his rival before moving in front again.



Out of the saddle with 2km to go, the duo again exchanged a few more words but neither made the decisive move.



Schleck was first to the line, but Contador was right on his tail.



Rodriguez was third, 1min 18secs behind, while Ryder Hesjedal (Team Garmin-Transitions) was fourth, a further nine seconds behind.



Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) recovered from an earlier crash to finish five seconds further back to hold on to his third-placed position ahead of Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who was sixth today, eight seconds behind Sanchez.





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