COL DU TOURMALET, France - Under a blistering attack from Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador tightened his grip on a third Tour de France title in four years by matching his rival's every acceleration during the ride up a challenging Pyrenean climb in yesterday's Stage 17.
Schleck set a punishing pace up the last six ascending miles of the Col du Tourmalet, but the Spaniard shadowed him wheel-to-wheel the whole way. In the end, Schleck won the 108.1-mile trek from Pau by a half bike-length, but failed in his bid to take the yellow jersey from Contador and gain time on his rival ahead of tomorrow's time trial.
"I did short accelerations really many times - it was the only possibility I had to try to drop him," Schleck said. "But he was too strong."
On the second climb, the Col du Soulor, a flock of sheep strayed into the road, causing some riders to swerve, brake and stop, though no one crashed.
With only three days of racing left before Sunday's finish in Paris, and two of the stages unlikely to alter the top of the standings, yesterday's leg was crucial. The wild card now is tomorrow's 32.3-mile time-trial, a discipline in which Contador excels.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong finished 4:12 behind the leading duo, in 17th place.
After a series of disappointments, including several early crashes, the Texan again revised his Tour hopes. Asked yesterday of his chances of a stage victory, Armstrong replied: "Slim to none." He's now focused on making sure his RadioShack squad maintains its lead in the team general classification.
Armstrong is in 23rd place overall, 37:58 behind Contador.