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Contador is ready to take victory tour

By Jamey Keaten
Associated Press / July 26, 2009

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MONT VENTOUX, France - Alberto Contador all but sealed his second Tour de France title yesterday, keeping the yellow jersey after a punishing mountain ride in the next-to-last stage.

And almost certain to join him on the podium is Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong, the seven-time champion who is riding in his first Tour since 2005, held off attacks from his closest challengers in the dreaded climb up Mont Ventoux to hold third place. He arrived in a small group that included Contador and second-place Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.

Armstrong said that even at his peak from 1999-2005 he might have lost to his Astana teammate.

“Contador is that good, so I don’t see how I would have been higher than that,’’ said the 37-year-old Texan.

He added that the Spaniard was even better than Jan Ullrich, one of Armstrong’s biggest rivals during the years that he won the Tour.

“Absolutely,’’ he said. “Far better.’’

The only thing keeping Contador from adding to his 2007 Tour title is a ceremonial 102-mile ride into Paris today.

The finale is a flat stage that traditionally doesn’t feature breakaways, meaning only an accident can prevent the Spaniard from going down the Champs-Elysees as the winner.

“This Tour has been very difficult,’’ he said. “Even if it could have looked easy from the spectators’ point of view, there have been some moments when I doubted about victory.’’

Juan Manuel Garate of Spain won the 20th stage, a 104-mile course from Montelimar that culminated with a very steep 13-mile ascent to the moonscapelike peak. Massive crowds lined the winding road to the bald-faced mountaintop, possibly shielding the riders from the swirling winds.

Garate entered the stage more than 1 1/2 hours behind Contador. He finished in 4 hours 39 minutes 21 seconds, holding off fellow breakaway rider Tony Martin of Germany by three seconds.

Schleck was third, 38 seconds back, in the same time as Contador. Armstrong was fifth, 41 seconds behind Garate, and Frank Schleck was sixth, 43 seconds back.

Although his team leadership had been threatened with the arrival of Armstrong, Contador has never deviated from his primary goal.

“I have been working very, very hard,’’ he said. “My whole attention has been focused on the Tour de France since the start of the season. I have been looking after every single detail.’’

With Armstrong back, Contador had to fight for his place as the team chief.

“The situation to prepare for the Tour was complicated,’’ he said. “There were many elements working against me. But I used that as an additional source of motivation.’’

Armstrong’s task yesterday, in order to finish among the top three, was to hold off two rivals: Bradley Wiggins of Britain began the stage 15 seconds behind him and Frank Schleck trailed him by 38. Armstrong said the start of the ride to Mont Ventoux was a “little aggressive,’’ but his assignment was clear.

“Following Wiggins and following Frank Schleck,’’ he said. “And I had the legs for that.’’

Contador, 26, had a comfortable margin over the other Schleck, brother Andy, who led at least a half-dozen attacks on the way up the peak.

“All I had to do was control Andy Schleck, and that’s what I did,’’ Contador said. “He attacked - it was a good day for him. I was able to rein him in.’’

Contador leads Andy Schleck by 4:11, with Armstrong 5:24 behind. Wiggins is fourth, 6:01 back, and Frank Schleck is fifth, 6:04 behind.

“Today was a difficult day,’’ Contador said. “I had to control Andy Schleck and I managed to do it. He attacked several times. He was enjoying a good day, too. But I was able to resist. I knew that every minute that went by was bringing me closer to a Tour de France victory.’’