Thursday’s action in Stave 17 of the Tour de France left no doubt who the top two men are in this year’s race. Unfortunately for stage winner Andy Schleck, the results made it just as clear who will ride into Paris in yellow—Alberto Contador.
As expected, Schleck, who trails Contador by just eight seconds in the overall standings, attacked as the road steepened toward today's brutal summit finish at the top of the Tourmalet. Contador was able to match him pedal stroke for pedal stroke, however. The two completely distanced the rest of the competition but crossed the line together.
After sitting on Schleck’s wheel all the way up the climb—as the two flew past the last survivors of the day’s early breakaway—Contador let his rival take the stage win. But the end result is that Contador, who is a far better time trialist than Schleck, heads into Saturday’s decisive time trial with an eight-second cushion. (Full results.)
Schleck did solidify his hold on second place, however. His attack on the Tourmalet distanced Denis Menchov, who is currently fourth in the overall but, like Contador, a rider who excels in time trials. Schleck now leads 3 minutes and 35 seconds, which should be enough on Saturday.
Any bad blood between Schleck and Contador left over from Monday, when the latter attacked as Schleck was having mechanical difficulties, appeared to be gone as the two embraced at the finish. The hug seemed to say it all: This was the final showdown, and the fight for the yellow jersey is settled.
If, however, Contador rolls into Paris on Sunday with a lead of less than 39 seconds, his controversial attack on Monday—cycling protocol holds that it's poor sportsmanship to take advantage of a rival's bad luck—will likely haunt both riders, though obviously in very different ways. Contador would be left with a black mark on his yellow jersey, and Schleck would be left wondering what could have been.
Behind the two race leaders, teammates Chris Horner, who finished eighth today, 1:45 behind Schleck; Andreas Kloden, 13th, at 3:30; and Lance Armstrong, 17th, at 4:12, all rode strongly to consolidate RadioShack’s lead in the team standings. It's not the prize they came to France hoping for, but it should offer some consolation. Horner, who moved into 10th place, 10:47 behind Contador, is now the team's highest placed rider.