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TOUR DE FRANCE: Title now Contador's to lose; Armstrong lawyers-up with another doping probe pending

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

COL DU TOURMALET, France -- Alberto Contador never wavered.

Under a blistering attack from Andy Schleck, the Spaniard tightened his grip on a third Tour de France title in four years by matching every acceleration his rival threw at him during the ride up a fabled Pyrenean climb in Thursday's 17th stage.

Schleck delivered on his promise to ride well on the last mountain of this year's race.

It just wasn't enough to shake Contador.

Schleck set a punishing pace up the last 6 miles on the ascent of the Col du Tourmalet, but the Spaniard shadowed him wheel-to-wheel the whole way. In the end, Schleck won the 108.1-mile trek from Pau by a half bike-length, but failed in his bid to take the yellow jersey from Contador and gain time on his rival ahead of Saturday's time trial.

"I did short accelerations really many times, it was the only possibility I had to try to drop him," Schleck said. "But he was too strong."

The Tourmalet was the last of three tough climbs in the stage made in cool temperatures under a drizzle and fog. Frenzied fans -- including some near-streakers -- ran alongside the duelists on the ascent, at least once seeming to irk Schleck. On the second climb, the Col du Soudor, a flock of sheep strayed into the road, causing some riders to swerve, brake and stop, though no one crashed.

With only three days of racing left before Sunday's finish in Paris, and two of the stages unlikely to alter the top of the standings, the two men knew that Thursday's leg was crucial.

Schleck had vowed to make an all-out effort.

On the Tourmalet, he repeatedly turned around, at times speaking to Contador or trying to catch his gaze in an attempt at mind games. The Spaniard never took the bait.

"I wanted him to pass, I wanted to be behind and attack him, but of course, he's very smart, and I knew that he only had to stay in my wheel," Schleck said. "I think Alberto did the right thing, he's a great professional."

Every time Schleck made a burst, Contador was right there, dancing lightly side to side up out of his saddle in a smooth rhythm.

Contador did what he needed to, and appeared to slow at the end, leaving Schleck to win his second stage this Tour, in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 29 seconds.

"He was really so strong and at the end, the sprint for me was not the most important thing," said Contador, who finished in the same time to remain in front by 8 seconds. "Today, the most important thing for me was not to lose time."

The wild card now is Saturday's 32.3-mile time-trial, a discipline in which Contador excels. Schleck said before Thursday's stage that he'd need to pick up a minute on Contador to have a chance of victory.

It was a day of scaled-down and revised expectations.

"I changed my mind when I crossed the finish line today," Schleck said. "We will see in the time trial."

"My dad always used to say that the one who did a good time trial, he fell off the bike when he finished," Schleck said, "and that's what I plan to do on Saturday."

Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who finished 4:12 behind the leading duo in 17th place, again revised down his hopes at the Tour.

At the start of the three-week race, the 38-year-old Texan had hoped to be a contender in his last Tour. That aspiration vanished in the debut in the Alps in Stage 8, when crashes slowed him down three times and he lagged in the climbs.

Then, Armstrong began angling for a stage victory.

His last big chance for that came in Tuesday's 16th stage, but he came up short in a final sprint among breakaway riders to finish sixth.

After Thursday's final mountain day, his expectations came down again. Asked what the chances were now of winning a stage,

Armstrong replied: "Slim to none."

He's now focused on making sure his RadioShack squad maintains its lead in the team general classification.

"The most important thing was that we stay ahead in the team GC, and that's what we did," Armstrong said. He's in 23rd place overall -- 37:58 behind Contador.

By finishing more than a minute ahead of everybody else, Schleck and Contador gave themselves a cushion for their drive to the Champs-Elysees podium.

They're now poised for the same 1-2 finish they had last year.

While 8 seconds is minimal, it seems Contador would have to have a bad day Saturday, Schleck an incredible one, or the Spaniard would have to crash for the Luxembourger to take the yellow jersey.

"It is possible to lose it at any time. Andy is very strong and you can expect him to do a really good time trial," Contador said. "But the situation today of course is very good."

"I still have to reach Paris, and it won't be easy," he said.

There are strong time-trial riders behind them, but the nearest contender -- Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Samuel Sanchez of Spain -- isn't considered one of them and he's 3:32 back in third.

Among those to watch will be Denis Menchov, a Russian on the Rabobank squad, who's fourth -- 21 seconds back of Sanchez. They will be battling for third on the podium, or ready to pounce if Contador or Schleck should falter.

Schleck, who's shown himself adept at fanning race drama, says he shouldn't be counted out yet.

"I'm sure I'll do a good time trial," he said. "I can see the yellow jersey in front of me, and I really want it, and I'm not going to give up until Paris."

In the meantime, sprinters are likely to step up during Friday's 18th stage, a mostly flat 123-mile ride from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux.