Lance to ride into Paris in third place
MONT VENTOUX, France -- Alberto Contador all but sealed his second Tour de France title Saturday, 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, a seven-time champion in his first Tour since 2005, held off attacks from his closest challengers in the dreaded climb up Mont Ventoux to hold third place. The 37-year-old Texan arrived in a small group that included Contador, his Astana teammate, and second-place Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
Armstrong, coming out of 3½ years of retirement, wanted a higher finish in cycling's showcase race but he knew it wouldn't be easy.
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"Hey, I can't complain. ... Coming out here and getting on the podium with these young guys, it's not so bad," he said.
The only thing keeping Contador from adding to his 2007 Tour title is a ceremonial ride into Paris on Sunday. 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 1½ 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.
Armstrong's task to finish among the top three was to hold off two rivals: Bradley Wiggins of Britain began the stage 15 seconds behind the Texan, and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg 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 had a comfortable margin over Andy Schleck, 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 overall by 4:11, with Armstrong 5:24 behind. Wiggins is fourth, 6:01 back, and Frank Schleck is fifth, 6:04 behind the Spaniard.
"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."
Garate said he dreamed of this stage victory last night.
"This is what I was missing -- to claim a Tour stage before retiring," he said on Spanish TV. "Now, although my retirement is not close, I've made it home with the stage. What more can you ask for?"
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press