Tour a battle between Schleck and Contador

Tour de France leader Andy Schleck is working to turn up the pressure on Alberto Contador as he and the defending champion lock into a two-way battle for supremacy.

With seven-time champion Lance Armstrong and two-time runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia out of contention, Schleck leads Spaniard Contador by just 41 seconds after Tuesday’s ninth stage and the Luxembourg rider is trying to unsettle his Spanish rival.

“I think we’re pretty equal,” Schleck said. “If he wants to win this, he’s got to attack me.”

Sandy Casar won the stage in a thrilling sprint finish, with Schleck and Contador closing in fast as the Frenchman crossed the line narrowly ahead of Luis-Leon Sanchez of Spain and Damiano Cunego of Italy.

The front three clocked five hours, 38 minutes, 10 seconds, two seconds faster than Schleck and Contador.

Casar’s win was spectacular, but the real drama unfolded elsewhere during the 204,5km trek from Morzine to St-Jean-La-Maurienne high in the French Alps.

After a stalemate up the opening two category one climbs — Col de la Colombiere and Col des Saisies — Schleck tried to break Contador on the mammoth finale up the Col de la Madeleine, so tough it is without classification.

Schleck surged ahead no fewer than three times, but each time Contador controlled the attacks.

“The others can also attack, but they don’t,” Schleck said. “Right now it looks like it’s Alberto vs me.”

Contador was only moderately impressed.

“I should not be distracted, but like I said yesterday [Monday], the most dangerous [rival] is Andy Schleck,” he said.

Schleck claimed after Sunday’s eighth stage —the one which effectively destroyed both Evans’s and Armstrong’s Tour chances — that Contador was showing signs of weakness.

The 25-year-old Schleck still hopes to “find a weak day when he is not super, and I can gain more time on him.

Double-edged compliments
Contador dominated the Tour climbs last year, but Schleck is stronger now, and — like Armstrong used to do to German rider Jan Ullrich in his prime — is trying to apply pressure with double-edged compliments.

“It’s possible [Contador] might be better in the Pyrenees. Me too, you know,” Schleck said, pausing before adding. “I think I will be better in the Pyrenees than him.”

Tuesday’s stage knocked overnight leader Evans out of the equation, and he is unlikely to get a podium place.

“I had a big crash at the start of that day [Sunday] and I’m really paying the consequences from that,” Evans said.

Riding with a fractured left elbow, Evans dropped to 18th place overall and nearly eight minutes behind Schleck.

Briefly putting aside their rivalry, Schleck and Contador hammered more time into Evans and other rivals.

“We had to join to distance the others, the circumstances were like this,” Contador said. “Now we have to be very [watchful of] each other.”

Armstrong, who was affected by three crashes on Sunday, fared better on Tuesday, finishing the stage in 18th place.

But he lost more time overall, and languishes in 31st spot overall, 15:54 behind Schleck.

Armstrong and his RadioShack team are now focusing on getting his fellow American rider, Levi Leipheimer, into a podium place.

Spanish rider Samuel Sanchez is third and is 1:14 ahead of Leipheimer, who is sixth overall ahead of Wednesday’s 10th stage from Chambery to Gap: a 179km route featuring a single category one climb.

“We have got to help Levi stay up as high as he can,” Armstrong said. “With his ability to time trial, hopefully we can come close to [getting him on] the podium.”

Tuesday’s Madeleine pass was familiarly gruelling for Armstrong.

“It’s steep at the end and it’s high. It’s just hard. That’s a legitimate climb,” Armstrong said. “It’s certainly the hardest climb we’ve done this year. There’s no hiding on the Madeleine.”

Wednesday’s stage, however, may or may not bring back fond memories for Armstrong.

Back in 2003, and seven years to the day, the stage also finished in Gap on July 14.

As Armstrong raced on a boiling hot day, his Spanish rival, Joseba Beloki, broke suddenly and fell in front of him when they zoomed down a hill with sharp bends.

Beloki’s fall on the sticky tarmac forced Armstrong to swerve dramatically, pick up his bike, run across a field and down a short bank before re-saddling; a fantastic moment of improvisation that underlined his dash and daring.

“I hope I stay out of the field [on Wednesday],” Armstrong said, ironically, reflecting on 2003, the year he almost lost the Tour to Ullrich. “There’s no way I could pull that off two times in a row.”

Armstrong’s had bad luck this year, but accepts it gracefully — knowing it should probably have happened before.

“Most experts are still in disbelief that in seven years, no mishaps, no major problems … We always dodged bullets there,” he said. “Speaking about Gap: How lucky? Just look at that as the one example of those seven years.

“Who’s to say that entry way is there into that field [this time around]? Five feet previously, five feet after … and you don’t finish the Tour de France.”

Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report. — Sapa-AP

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