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Glory beckons for Contador

When Alberto Contador next gets off his bike, it is likely to be as the three-time winner of the Tour de France.

The Spaniard will be the last rider to take to the roads for today's 52km 19th-stage time-trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac, and is expected to substantially extend his eight-second lead over Luxembourger Andy Schleck.

When the two men met in last year's time-trial, Contador won the stage -- which was shorter than this year's outing -- and took 1 minute, 45 seconds from Schleck. Contador went on to win the Tour, with Schleck second -- the same result that most expect to see this year.

Today is the last stage in which the positions at the top can change. Tomorrow's final stage into Paris is traditionally a sprinters' stage and a day-long victory procession for the overall winner.

Still, Contador insists his victory is not certain until the time-trial is over.

"This is a hard stage that comes after 20 days in the Tour, and this isn't a race for specialists. I will really have to fight a lot to win the stage and to defeat (Schleck)," he said.

Schleck, for his part, has not given up hope.

"I feel good. I have nothing to lose," he said. "He's better but I'm not bad, too. We're going to see a battle tomorrow."

In the race for third place, Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain holds a 21-second lead over Denis Menchov of Russia, the winner of last year's Giro d'Italia.

Among those hoping for the stage win today is world time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, Schleck's team-mate at Saxo Bank. Cancellara took the race's prologue time-trial and held the yellow jersey for six days at the start of the race.

Yesterday, Mark Cavendish showed yet again that, even without his most important team-mate, few can touch him when it comes to sprinting.

The British rider captured the 18th stage from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux in a sprint finish. It is his fourth win of this year's Tour and his 14th in just three years of competing in cycling's premier event.

He surged to the front in the final 200 yards. He gave himself such a lead that he was able to look behind him a couple of times and then cross the line with his fist in the air.

Cavendish won without his usual leadout man and room-mate, Mark Renshaw, who was expelled from the race after the 11th stage for head-butting an opponent, and Cavendish dedicated his latest victory to Renshaw. He says the Australian rider made life easy, bringing him to the front at just the right moment.

"I've missed Mark," Cavendish said. "I missed him in the Pyrenees, I missed somebody suffering more than me. I missed somebody to laugh about, about how hard it is."

Second place went to Julian Dean of New Zealand and third to Alessandro Petacchi of Italy. Petacchi took the green jersey, given to the leading sprinter, from Norway's Thor Hushovd.

Hushovd acknowledged that his fight to retain the sprint title he won last year was over.

"It's a big disappointment, but I realised step by step during the sprints that I'm suffering," said Hushovd. "I don't have the same level as Cavendish and Petacchi, and this was just another sprint that didn't work out."

Ireland's Nicholas Roche finished yesterday's stage in 18th place, putting him on track to achieve his aim of finishing the Tour in 15th place.