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Contador goes down swinging

L'ALPE d'HUEZ, France (VN) —Alberto Contador was too proud to finish a frustrating and injury-plagued Tour de France lying down.

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2011 Tour de France stage 19: Alberto Contador punch
Contador dispatched with a spectator who bothered him on the Alpe. Photo: AFP

L’ALPE d’HUEZ, France (VN) – Alberto Contador was too proud to finish a frustrating and injury-plagued Tour de France lying down.

Contador was nearly in tears at the summit of the Galibier in Thursday’s stage when he lost any realistic chance of winning the Tour. Less than 24 hours later, he unleashed a searing attack early in Friday’s short but explosive climbing stage to put everyone into full panic mode.

Although the breakaway attempt was marked by arch-rival Andy Schleck(Leopard-Trek), Contador bravely tried again on the Alpe d’Huez. He bolted away with 12.5km to go and after opening a promising gap, he started to run out of gas with 5km to go, an eternity on the twisting switchbacks of the Alpe.

Pierre Rolland (Europcar) chugged past in the closing 3km to solo toward victory. When best-friend Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) pulled up with 2km to go, Contador shook his head and said he couldn’t go anymore. The Pistolero came up empty, but went down swinging and put an exclamation point on what’s been a bittersweet Tour.

“I took a big blow yesterday, but after thinking about all the setbacks I’ve had in this Tour, I decided to just go for it today,” Contador told a mob of Spanish journalists at the line. “I could care less if I come in sixth or seventh or wherever. Anything less than the yellow jersey for me is a disappointment. Once the GC option was gone yesterday, I decided to risk everything.”

After coming to terms with the disappointment on the Galibier, Contador didn’t waste any time Friday afternoon, attacking just after the peloton hit the lower flanks of the Télégraphe. Contador’s surge sent an electric charge through the peloton as GC favorites scrambled to try to limit the damage. Everyone knew that Contador couldn’t be allowed to ride away so soon.

Jumping right on his wheel was Andy Schleck, who knew better than to give Contador an opening. Cadel Evans (BMC) and race leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) also quickly bridged across, but the peloton was blowing up in their wake.

“It was panic mode in the bunch when he attacked,” said Garmin-Cervélo’s Tom Danielson. “Everyone was scrambling to keep their riders in position.”

Evans later dropped out of the group after his rear wheel started to rub against his frame, forcing him to switch bikes. Evans eventually led the chase over the Galibier and Contador’s long-shot attack was nullified coming toward the base of the Alpe d’Huez.

“We made the plan this morning. We needed to get clear early and maintain a gap over the Galibier, but Andy came with Alberto, and that made it more complicated,” said Saxo Bank-Sungard boss Bjarne Riis. “Alberto proved he was a true champion today by making an attack like that.”

Contador wasn’t done yet, however. Barely a kilometer into the 13.5km Alpe d’Huez climb, Contador shot out of the pack. He quickly reeled in the attacking Rolland and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) and seemed on a fast track for a Tour-saving stage victory.

After opening a one-minute gap, Contador slowly started to fade. Rolland proved resilient and Sánchez attacked out of the GC group, putting Contador under pressure. By the time Rolland squeezed past, Contador’s stage hopes were fading fast.

With third on the stage, Contador settled into sixth overall at 3:55 behind new leader Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek). A strong time trial at Grenoble could bump him as high as fourth place overall, but for the proud Spaniard who’s won six straight grand tour’s that he started, anything less than the maillot jaune is a disappointment.

“I came to this Tour hoping to pull off the Giro-Tour double, but I knew it would be difficult,” Contador said. “I am leaving the Tour with a good sensation. I am content. I didn’t have the legs to win the Tour after racing the Giro, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I gave 100 percent at the Giro, Catalunya, Castilla y León, Murcia and Algarve. I wouldn’t exchange all that for the Tour.”

Riis also admitted the Tour was a disappointment, but said the team came with the idea of nothing short of winning.

“This hasn’t been our Tour,” Riis said. “We didn’t get out of it what we came here for. The Giro was very hard and he’s paying a price for that, but we fought to the end and we’re proud of that. I also know that when Alberto is at his highest level, he’s untouchable.”

Contador will likely have another bittersweet moment in Paris on Sunday, when he will ride down the Champs-Elysées without the yellow jersey on his shoulders for the first time since winning his first of three Tours in 2007.