- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LA MONGIE, France -- It was cinematic, yet still anticlimactic.
The top two men in the Tour de France, separated in the standings by just eight seconds, crested one of the most storied mountain roads in cycling in fog dense enough to blur the car headlights behind them and briefly render them colorless silhouettes.
When they emerged from the mist, the white-clad Best Young Rider was followed by the yellow-clad Best Rider, who chose confirmation over confrontation Thursday.
Defending champion Alberto Contador glued himself to Andy Schleck's back wheel for all but a few hundred yards of the ascent of the Col du Tourmalet. It was a one-sided duel. Rather than risking a Hail Mary attack to try to give himself a better shot at the title going into Saturday's time trial, Schleck tried to inflict death by paper cuts, accelerating in small bursts and changing his pedaling rhythm multiple times.
Schleck looked over his shoulder at the Spaniard every so often after the two broke away with six uphill miles remaining. He asked Contador to take a pull at one point. "But he's not stupid," the Saxo Bank team leader said. "He knew all he had to do was stay with me."
When Contador did surge forward temporarily with 2.5 miles to go, he said it was largely an exhibition. "I wanted to show him I had good legs -- I wanted to tell him, 'Hey, I'm here too,'" Contador said, as if there were any chance Schleck had forgotten about the maddeningly immovable object in his slipstream.
Contador didn't contest the stage win, saying it was "secondary" to him and tacitly acknowledging Schleck had done all the work. The most suspenseful part of the final couple of miles was watching them try to dodge the usual Mardi Gras ensemble of bizarrely costumed (or, in some cases, near-naked) flag-waving, delirious roadside celebrants, who were not restrained by barricades until the 500-meter mark.
So this Tour will come down to Saturday's flat, 32.3-mile time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac, where the forecast is for mostly sunny skies, temperatures in the high 70s, a very low chance of precipitation and a comfortable win for Contador based on the two men's skills in the solo discipline. Derailing him would probably take a deus ex machina even more disruptive than the herd of sheep that scampered across the course at one point Thursday.
Schleck, the Luxembourger who was the 2009 runner-up, doesn't appear inclined to go out like a lamb. Reminded of his prediction that the man in yellow after Stage 17 would be the Tour champion, Schleck said, "I changed my mind when I crossed the finish line. My dad always said that when someone does a good time trial, they fall off the bike ... I can see the yellow jersey in front of me, and I'm not going to give up before Paris."
If Contador doesn't win the time trial but extends his margin over Schleck, he would become the first rider to clinch a Tour title without winning an individual stage since Greg LeMond in 1990. Friday and Sunday's stages will end with bunch sprints that won't include the overall contenders.
The last spot on the podium is still in play, as Spain's Samuel Sanchez, the gold medalist in the 2008 Olympic road race and Euskaltel team leader, recovered from an early crash to finish fifth in the stage, just ahead of Rabobank leader Denis Menchov of Russia. Menchov, stronger in time trials, would need to make up 21 seconds to overtake Sanchez.
In what can only be described as an unforeseen scenario, veteran RadioShack domestique Chris Horner is now the top American rider in the overall standings, in 10th place, nearly four minutes ahead of Levi Leipheimer and 27 minutes in front of Lance Armstrong.
Horner's animated riding over the past few stages, including Thursday's eighth-place finish, helped to virtually secure the team victory (lowest cumulative time) for RadioShack, which leads the Spanish Caisse d'Epargne team by 8:30 with three flat stages left.
However, the distinction of highest-placed North American rider almost certainly will belong to Canada's Ryder Hesjedal of the Garmin-Transitions team, who stayed with Sanchez and Menchov on the final climb and uncorked one last effort at the top, finishing fourth in the stage. Hesjedal, in eighth place overall, is poised to record the best showing for a Canadian in the Tour since Steve Bauer's fourth place in 1988.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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