Contador all but clinches Tour de France victory

Alberto Contador of Spain all but locked up a Tour de France victory on Saturday by holding off his top rival in the final time trial, a day before the doping-marred race ends in Paris.

American rider Levi Leipheimer, a Discovery Channel teammate of Contador, won the 19th stage with a time of one hour, two minutes and 44 seconds in the 55,5km race against the clock from Cognac to Angouleme.

Contador lost most of his lead, but still holds a 23-second advantage over Cadel Evans. Barring a crash or other mishap, the 24-year-old Spaniard looks likely to bring home the yellow jersey after the 20th and final stage—a 146km ride from Marcoussis to Paris’s Champs-Élysées on Sunday.

The last stage is seen as a largely processional ride, with few chances for breakaways.

“I’m eager to go home and celebrate,” said Contador, who was encouraged during the stage by seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who has ties to Discovery and was riding behind in a team car. “It wasn’t an easy day.”

Evans conceded that he had lost, attributing his defeat to having fallen back in the Peyresourde climb in the Pyrenees at the beginning of the third week.
“I was close to winning the Tour de France,” he said.

Contador’s Discovery Channel teammates are likely to go all out on Sunday to protect his lead and ensure that rivals don’t overtake him on the ride up to the finish on the famed Paris avenue.

“We’ve won this Tour de France—barring a freak accident tomorrow,” Leipheimer said of his team. “I am obviously very happy for Alberto.”

If all holds, Contador will win with the second-closest margin of victory yet at the Tour. The record was American Greg Lemond’s eight-second margin over France’s Laurent Fignon in 1989.

Contador came into the stage with a lead of 1:50 over Evans—and Saturday’s big question was whether he could hold off the Australian.

Leipheimer, who had come in 2:49 back of Contador in third place overall, now trails him by 31 seconds. It was his first stage win at the Tour. “I didn’t know in the warm-up that I’d be so good,” Leipheimer said. “It’s a special day and today I had the best legs of my life.”

The tense ride injected racing drama to cycling’s premier event after three riders were kicked out in the space of 30 hours—two for doping and one for lying to his team.

Contador is riding in his second Tour, after winning this year’s Paris-Nice race. He didn’t take part in the race last year because his former Astana team was disqualified after five of their riders were implicated in the Spanish blood-doping probe known as Operation Puerto.

French daily Le Monde, citing what it claimed was an investigation file it had access to, said on Saturday that Contador’s name, or initials, appeared in documents found at the apartment of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, at the centre of the Spanish probe.

Contador said he was “sure” that he was not involved in the case, and insisted he was innocent. He said he would—if asked—give a DNA sample to prove it, but wouldn’t offered it up. “Because I’m innocent and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” he said.

Contador would be the Tour’s youngest winner since Jan Ullrich in 1997. A victory for Evans would be a big lift for sports-mad Australia, where both codes of rugby and cricket hold sway.

Contador inherited the leader’s yellow jersey only after former Michael Rasmussen was ousted on Wednesday by his Rabobank team, who said the Dane had lied about where he was when he missed a doping test last month.

Italy’s Cristian Moreni and pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov were also ejected after testing positive for doping.

“I think cycling is crazy now; we see that there are a lot of problems,” Contador said. “It’s clear that we can’t continue with all the scandals and all the problems we had.”—Sapa-AP

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