Andy Schleck may have edged the battle but Alberto Contador has surely won the war. The two rivals fought each other all the way up the Col du Tourmalet yesterday and if at the finish it was Schleck who nudged ahead to be first over the line, Contador retained his overall lead of eight seconds and must now be a huge favourite to wear the yellow jersey in Paris on Sunday.
With a 52-kilometre (32-miles) individual time trial tomorrow the only challenge left – Contador is usually far superior to Schleck in that discipline – the Tour is almost certain to be taken by the Spaniard for a third time in four years. But by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that Schleck has gifted Contador victory, and on the Tour's last Pyrenean stage the 25-year-old from Luxembourg pushed his rival mercilessly.
For the first 150 kilometres, as a six-man breakaway including Sky's Juan Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson Hagen led the race, the only highlights were a bad crash for Spain's Samuel Sanchez, third overall, and a herd of sheep invading the road on the climb of the Col du Soulour. But as soon as the road reared upwards on the Tourmalet, Schleck sent his Saxo Bank team to the front, with even the winner of the prologue in Rotterdam, Fabian Cancellara, normally a poor climber, turning up the pace.
As the break ahead disintegrated, Saxo Bank's pressure shredded the peloton to just 40 riders after just three kilometres of climbing. Contador was losing support riders unusually quickly as a grimacing Chris Anker Sorensen pounded away at the head of the pack, but the yellow jersey himself looked comfortable in the middle of the bunch.
After Flecha was caught thanks to yet another Saxo Bank rider, Jakob Fuglsang, accelerating again, it was Schleck's turn to strike. With his tall frame clad in the white jersey of the Best Young Rider hunched over his bike, Schleck bounded clear. But in a scenario that repeated itself time and again on the final 10 kilometres, whenever he looked round it was to see a yellow rider, almost ghostly in the mist, shadowing him close behind.
For 25 long minutes, the two riders' positions barely changed: Schleck ahead, glancing back every kilometre or so, but usually staring fixedly into the mist, and Contador, mouth open, sticking like glue to his back wheel. Every so often Schleck would attempt to open a gap with another gradual acceleration – it was later estimated he tried 15 times – but he was already close to his limit and the Spaniard could respond easily.
The only major attack came from Contador, who briefly opened a gap with a vicious little charge three kilometres from the line. Schleck quickly responded with a counter-move, coming alongside him and even briefly exchanging words. "I asked him to go ahead for a little bit so I could attack him, but he was too clever for that," Schleck said later.
Under a leaden sky with no real change of position, the racing could have become a shade monotonous, but the spectators, even more colourful than usual despite the heavy rain, provided roadside entertainment. Men clad in green thongs and nothing else, another in a floral apron, raincoat and a bikini bottom, a bullfighter with a waistcoat, and even a yellow frogman loomed up out of the mist as the two pedalled past – Schleck as ever ahead, Contador behind.
"I tried time and again, but I could only do slight accelerations – he was too strong," Schleck said. "But it was impossible, Alberto was very smart, he knew he had to stick on my wheel and that was it."
Schleck added that he did not regard the race as completely decided. "I know I said whoever led in the Tourmalet would win in Paris, but there's still only eight seconds between us.
"Alberto used to be the best climber in the world, but I've proved at the very least that I'm the best climber in this year's Tour, so who knows what will happen in the time trial? It's certainly not over yet." His manager, Bjarne Riis, was more realistic, however. "You never know, but normally the Tour is finished," he said.
As for Contador, the Spaniard preached caution, but in being presented with the yellow jersey after the stage he gave his widest grin yet of the entire Tour. "The race isn't over till Paris, but this is a big step forward," he said. "The important thing today was not to lose time or the yellow and I achieved both of those objectives." Asked why he had not managed to drop Schleck as he would have done in previous Tours, Contador joked, "Maybe I'm getting old."
Today sees a second-last opportunity for Mark Cavendish to increase his total of three wins in this year's race, and launch a last-ditch challenge for the green jersey. Only a Cavendish victory combined with a disastrous performance by both points leader Thor Hushovd and second-placed Alessandro Petacchi could put the Manxman back in the game. Otherwise he will have to settle for being the Tour's fastest sprinter but without the green jersey – an identical outcome to last year.
After yesterday's result, a close finish looks likely. It won't be the first:
1989: 8 seconds
In the closest Tour in history, the twice champion Laurent Fignon was beaten by Greg LeMond in a time trial into Paris despite taking a 50-second lead into the stage.
Alberto Contador's first Tour was another narrow triumph, with Cadel Evans in second. Levi Leipheimer was 31 second back, making this the closest top three in history.
A final time trial into Paris, as in 1989, saw one man leapfrog another. In '68 it was the Dutchman Jan Janssen who got the better of Belgium's Herman Van Springel.
Stephen Roche was another beneficiary of a time trial, overtaking Spaniard Pedro Delgado courtesy of the penultimate day's stage.Reuse content