Alberto Contador (Astana) is backing into what looks to be his third Tour de France win in four years.
The Spanish climber took a major step toward overall victory in Thursday’s 174km 16th stage from Pau to the Col du Tourmalet, but he did it without the trademark chispa that fans were growing accustomed to. He has yet to win a stage and barely gone on the attack throughout this Tour.
Contador marked Andy Schleck’s (Saxo Bank) wheel all the way to the top of the foggy summit of the Tourmalet, tried once to attack with 4km to go, and then rode to distance his other GC rivals and keep Schleck on his eight-second leash.
Contador is so sure of his imminent victory that he didn’t contest Schleck for the stage victory as the pair rolled in 1:18 ahead of third-place Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
“I felt good on the Tourmalet. I had good sensations. Andy was going very strong all the way up the climb. We were interested in opening up differences behind us as well,” Contador said. “Today I was thinking more about the GC. The stage was secondary. Today was an important step toward victory, but things are very close.”
Thursday’s stage was typical of Contador’s defensive strategy that he’s adopted this year against a very strong Andy Schleck.
Contador and Schleck proved yet again they are all but equal in the mountains. Schleck railed it from 10km to go and couldn’t shake Contador, who only tried once to drop Schleck.
Contador said it was only fair that Schleck win the stage since the Saxo Bank captain did most of the pulling up the final half of the Tourmalet. Thanks to Schleck’s efforts, Contador gained more breathing room to podium rivals Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), now third at 3:32, and Denis Menchov (Rabobank), fourth at 3:53.
Without time bonuses at the line, there was no reason for Contador to attack to win the stage if he knew he couldn’t open up big time differences to Schleck.
The only time Contador did attack during this Tour was in Monday’s stage over the Port de Balès, when Schleck dropped his chain with about 3km to go to the summit. Contador has received nothing but grief since he attacked — along with Sánchez and Menchov — and gained the yellow jersey as a result.
Contador seems to have learned that chivalry does pay dividends. When podium contender Sánchez crashed early in Thursday’s stage, Contador waved for the peloton to soft-pedal until Sánchez and his Euskaltel teammates could regain contact with the pack.
Contador admitted he is not winning this year’s Tour with the same attacking style that he’s won his previous four grand tours, but so far he’s said he simply hasn’t had to attack.
Contador said it’s a not a question of not being as strong as last year.
“That’s what a lot of people are saying, whether or not I have the same superiority. I’ve felt good during this Tour. It depends on the situation of the race. Maybe this year I didn’t have to attack so much and I could ride more conservative,” he said. “I’ve had good sensations throughout this Tour. I have my data and I am on the same level as last. Also, I am getting older (laughs).”
Astana is boldly confident that Contador can fend off Schleck in the final time trial in Bordeaux. And with time trial threat Menchov losing 1:40 up the Tourmalet, the Contador camp is quietly putting the champagne on ice.
Publicly, Contador isn’t counting his chickens before they’re hatched. One puncture, a crash or a mechanical problem could spell doom, especially in Saturday’s time trial.
“You can lose the Tour at any moment. Today was an important step. The others are more distanced. Every day the Tour is a new story. Andy could have a great time trial. It’s still very tight,” Contador said. “It will be a benefit to start last in the time trial. It gives you the advantage of knowing the references. The key was to not lose time today.”
So far, Contador hasn’t lost much time to Schleck, but he hasn’t gained much time, either. It will all come down to Saturday’s time trial.