Contador victory march a cruel twist for Schleck
The Spaniard will win by 39 seconds, the time he gained controversially on his main rival, says Richard Williams
After more than 2,000 miles of racing over the past three weeks, exhaustion finally caught up with Andy Schleck yesterday.
For almost exactly half of the penultimate stage of the 2010 Tour de France -- a 52km time trial through the vineyards from Bordeaux to Pauillac -- the young Luxembourg rider matched the speed of Alberto Contador, the man lying eight seconds ahead of him in the overall standings when the day began. Then the power disappeared from his legs like sand through a sieve.
At the end, the gap between them was 31 seconds, which means, barring accidents during today's ceremonial final stage from Longjumeau to Paris, the Spaniard will win the Tour for the third time, by a margin of 39 seconds -- exactly the amount of time by which he profited so controversially when Schleck's chain came off on the Port de Bales last Monday.
That incident may still rankle with 25-year-old Schleck. He will be encouraged, however, by the knowledge that a year ago, when the two riders occupied the same positions on the victory podium, the margin between them -- at 4mins 11secs -- was considerably greater.
Contador, who is 27, has plenty of time left in which to draw level with the four men who have won the Tour five times, if not the one who has seven victories to his credit. But Schleck, who yesterday assured himself of the white jersey awarded to the best rider aged under 26, performed well enough in a discipline that is not his speciality to believe his name will one day go up alongside that of Luxembourg's other Tour winners: Francois Faber in 1909, Nicolas Frantz, who won in 1927 and then repeated the feat the following year -- holding the maillot jaune from the first day to the last -- and Charly Gaul, the Angel of the Mountains, whose success came in 1958.
Yesterday's race ended outside a handsome town hall on a quay running alongside the broad mouth of the Gironde, which receives the waters of the Garonne and the Dordogne a few kilometres upstream. Pauillac is a town of 5,400 inhabitants and 3,000 acres of vines, including three premier crus: Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
Degustations were taking place on every street corner and a brass band was marching into the Place Marechal Foch when the first of the riders crossed the finish line shortly before noon.
The early starters benefited from calmer conditions and the winning time was set by a rider starting 38th of the 170 survivors of the original field of 198.
His identity, however, was no surprise. Fabian Cancellara won the prologue in Rotterdam three weeks ago and has been going so fast this year that he was accused, in all seriousness, of having secreted a battery-powered motor inside the bottom bracket of his bike. There was even a YouTube film to "prove" it. As a result, competitors' bikes are now randomly screened for electrical doping.
The second and third places were settled early, too, in favour of a pair of German riders with the HTC-Columbia team, Tony Martin and Bert Grabsch. Looking ahead to today's sprint in the Champs-Elysees, Mark Cavendish will be hoping that his team-mates still have enough energy left in their legs to help manoeuvre him into position -- although, given the margin of his victory in Bordeaux on Friday, he may give them the afternoon off.
Bradley Wiggins -- in the colours of the British time trial champion -- registered the third-fastest time at the first checkpoint, but faded slightly and finished ninth, 3mins 33secs behind Cancellara. Five seconds and one place behind him came his Team Sky colleague Geraint Thomas, the 24-year-old Welshman who held the white jersey for six days and whose second visit to the Tour has confirmed his promise.
Lance Armstrong, for whom a time trial provided so many opportunities for displays of dominance in the Tour, could come home no higher than 67th, a little more than seven minutes behind the winner. His time was nevertheless good enough to enable him to hang on to his 23rd place in the overall classification, four seconds ahead of Wiggins.
The only significant positional change as a result of the day's events came when Denis Menchov knocked Samuel Sanchez, of Spain out of third place in the general standings. The silent Russian thus matches his placing of two years ago, when he was promoted from fourth after the disqualification of Bernard Kohl.
Once Schleck and Contador got going, with three minutes between them, the tension mounted rapidly. After 7km, Contador was four seconds up, at 16km they were level, at 22km Schleck had a five-second advantage, at 28km they were level again -- and from there, Contador, his 5'9'' frame tucked lower on his bike than that of his 6'1'' Luxembourg rival, spun a high-pedalling cadence to open the gap that he will be celebrating this afternoon. Nicolas Roche, meanwhile, held onto 15th place overall after finishing in 53rd yesterday.