Alberto Contador virtually secured his second Tour de France crown after the race’s 20th and penultimate stage won by his fellow Spaniard Juan Manuel Garate on Saturday.
On the third and final summit of the race, the 2007 champion proved imperial as his main rival Andy Schleck, of Saxo Bank, launched a series of attacks with his brother Frank on the 21.1km climb to the legendary summit of Mont Ventoux.
Schleck began the day in second, 4 minutes, 11 seconds behind Contador, and despite his efforts he will go into the final stage to Paris with the same deficit after finishing with Contador, 38 seconds behind Garate.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, third overall 5 minutes, 24 seconds back, finished just behind in fifth place 41 seconds back, meaning he will go into the 21st stage all but assured of a top three finish.
Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, 6 minutes, 1 second back, should finish fourth.
Garate had been part of an earlier breakaway and rode most of the race’s final climb in the company of German Tony Martin.
Having started the day with a huge lead on Andy Schleck, Contador said his task was simple.
“All I had to do was control Andy Schleck. He tried several times to attack, it was a good day for him, but I was on a good day as well,” said 2007 champion Contador, who admitted that it had not been an easy Tour. “This was a very difficult Tour. Even though it looks easy for the spectators, quite a few times I had doubts whether I would win or not.”
It was an incisive attack by the 24-year-old Luxemburger Andy Schleck around 12km from the summit that proved decisive for the outcome of the stage.
Schleck’s move was easily countered by Contador, who looked comfortable in his trademark dancing position throughout the climb up the steep gradients of the “Giant of Provence.”
Armstrong eventually made it back to Contador and Schleck’s group, but the American was initially left trailing to keep a close eye on Frank Schleck and Wiggins — potential rivals to his coveted podium place.
“Lance Armstrong was very strong today,” Andy Schleck said. “We tried our best to try and get Frank on the podium, while also trying to defend my second place overall. I wasn’t too worried about losing it, so I tried 100 percent to help Frank, but it wasn’t to be.”
Up ahead, Garate and Martin continued their two-man slog toward the finish line, but after starting the climb with a lead of over 4 minutes, 41 seconds on Contador’s group, their advantage dropped to 2 minutes, 50 seconds by the time Andy Schleck first started attacking.
Italian Franco Pellizotti, wearing the polka dot jersey for the race’s best climber, launched a futile attack for the stage win after he saw Contador and Schleck closing and later finished in eighth, 56 seconds behind.
Another attack by Andy Schleck just over 2km from the finish wiped out Wiggins’ fading hopes of overcoming his 15-second deficit to Armstrong.
It prompted Contador, Armstrong and Frank Schleck to follow, but dropped the Englishman, who went on to finish the stage 10th.
Armstrong, who is set to return to the Tour next year with a new team, RadioShack, was happy with his likely third place finish four years after he last competed in the race.
“I can’t complain, for an old fart coming in here and getting on the podium with these young guys is not so bad,” the Texan said.