PAUILLAC, France (Reuters) - Spaniard Alberto Contador was poised to win his third Tour de France Saturday after he extended his lead over Andy Schleck to 39 seconds following the 52-km individual penultimate stage time trial.
Contador held an eight-second advantage over his rival going into the timed stage and a strong finish over the final third of the course put the title in his grasp despite a valiant effort from Luxembourg’s Schleck, who is now set to finish runner-up for the second successive year.
Sunday’s final stage is a 102.5-km ride to the Champs-Elysees in Paris, traditionally a day-long parade.
“It’s very emotional, it was so very difficult. I trained very hard all year. I kept focused and this was a hard Tour until the last minute,” said Contador, who cried when receiving the yellow jersey on the podium.
The Spaniard said he had not been as dominant as last year, when he beat Schleck by over four minutes.
“There have been a few days in which I did not feel so good. That’s the first time a Tour victory gives me so much emotion,” the 2007 and 2009 champion said.
“I gave it my all from start to finish. I tried everything I could to beat Contador. I won two stages and I finished second. I’ll return next year to win,” Schleck responded.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, but it was a good try. I cried and I screamed. There was nothing else to do,” said Schleck’s Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis.
“He did everything perfectly. It was the time trial of his life so far. I think it was fantastic.”
The 39-second gap between the pair was identical to the one obtained amid controversy by the Astana team leader in Monday’s 15th stage to Bagneres de Luchon when his Luxembourg rival was hampered by a mechanical fault.
Schleck fought bravely Saturday and if Contador, who had always comprehensively beaten Schleck in time trials, was expecting a lap of honor in the Bordeaux vineyards, he was mistaken.
Schleck had promised to die on his bike to defend his last yellow jersey chances and he was true to his word for 40 kilometers, even taking some time off the Spaniard in the first 30-kms.
The suspense reached a high after 20 kms in the race when Contador’s overall lead had been stripped to the bare minimum.
The narrowest gap at the finish in the Champs-Elysees, eight seconds in Greg LeMond’s 1989 victory over Laurent Fignon, looked in danger.
But the finale, swept by side-winds which favored power over motivation, was on the Spaniard’s side and Schleck gradually lost momentum and was even seen swinging to and fro in exhaustion.
There was a race within the race for third place in the overall classification and Denis Menchov won it easily.
The Russian, third in the Tour in 2008, not only overtook Spain’s Samuel Sanchez in the standings, he also did it on the road, also catching Belgium’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, who had started six minutes before him.
“It’s confirmation of what I can do. Every year I am getting stronger in the Tour,” said Menchov, who won one Giro and two Vueltas.
“I previewed the course this morning and I knew it was a good one for me. I felt strong on the course and when I heard the first time splits, I knew that I could finish ahead of Snchez. I have to be very satisfied with this Tour.”
It was seven-times champion Lance Armstrong last Tour de France time trial, the American finishing 67th in the stage and 23rd overall. He left the scene in a private car with his 10-year-old son Luke.
There was far less suspense for the stage victory as Swiss Fabian Cancellara, the Olympic and world champion, outclassed the rest of the bunch in one hour and 56 seconds.
Editing by Justin Palmer and John Mehaffey