Spain’s 2007 champion Alberto Contador tightened his grip on the Tour de France yellow jersey in France on the race’s 17th stage Wednesday as the peloton waved goodbye to the Alps.
Luxemburger Frank Schleck won the stage after he and younger brother Andy were left to race with Contador from the summit of the day’s fifth and final climb, the Col de la Colombiere, towards the finish.
Although rivals, the trio made huge benefits in working together.
The Schlecks moved up the overall standings to drop Britain’s Bradley Wiggins off the virtual podium, one of the reasons why Contador apparently chose not to dispute the stage win. While the stage win for Saxo Bank is welcome, especially after they lost close teammate Jens Voigt to a serious crash on Tuesday, the Schlecks will take more pleasure from their jump up the race’s general classification.
Contador now leads Andy Schleck by 2min 26sec overall, with brother Frank moving up to third at 3:25 behind the Spaniard.
Lance Armstrong meanwhile kept his promise to support teammate Contador’s cause, staying behind to mark potential rivals when the Spaniard counter-attacked the Schlecks on the Col de Romme.
The 37-year-old American, the seven-time champion, came in around two minutes adrift to drop from second overall at 1:37 to fourth at 3:55 behind Contador.
Their Astana teammate Andreas Kloden is fifth while Wiggins, arguably the day’s biggest loser, dropped from third to sixth at 4:53.
“We had nothing to lose this morning,” said Frank Schleck, who took his second stage win on the race and first since winning at Alpe d’Huez in 2006.
“We staked everything on launching those attacks. It was a bit risky but at the end of the day you have to take risks to benefit.”
On the third and last, and most difficult, day of climbing in the Alps Contador confirmed his status as the undisputed race leader. With the next big rendez-vous the individual time trial on Thursday, and with neither Schlecks known for their formidable time trialling skills, Contador’s lead looks comfortable.
He denied he had deliberately collaborated with the Schlecks, but the Spaniard admitted their ride together had allowed him to put the threat of Wiggins, a time trial specialist, out of his mind. The final major test of the Tour will be on the penultimate stage, which finishes with the 21km climb to the summit of Mont Ventoux.