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His last big chance for that came in Tuesday's 16th stage, but he came up short in a final sprint among breakaway riders to finish sixth.
"It is possible to lose it at any time. Andy is very strong and you can expect him to do a really good time trial," Contador said. "But the situation today of course is very good."
drop him," Schleck said. "But he was too strong."
Every time Schleck made a burst, Contador was right there, dancing lightly side to side up out of his saddle in a smooth rhythm. Contador did what he needed to, and appeared to slow at the end, leaving Schleck to win his second stage this Tour, in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 29 seconds.
"I changed my mind when I crossed the finish line today," Schleck said. "We will see in the time trial."
his RadioShack squad maintains its lead in the team general classification.
"I wanted him to pass, I wanted to be behind and attack him, but of course, he's very smart, and I knew that he only had to stay in my wheel," Schleck said. "I think Alberto did the right thing, he's a great professional."
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Then, Armstrong began angling for a stage victory.
The Tourmalet was the last of three tough climbs in the stage made in cool temperatures under a drizzle and fog. Frenzied fans including some near streakers ran alongside the duelists on the ascent, at least once seeming to irk Schleck. On the second climb, the Col du Soudor, a flock of sheep strayed into the road, causing some riders to swerve, brake and stop, though no one crashed.
Schleck had vowed to make an all out effort.
Schleck set a punishing pace up the last 6 miles on the ascent of the Col du Tourmalet, but the Spaniard shadowed him wheel to wheel the whole way. In the end, Schleck won the 108.1 Omega Seamaster Watch Strap mile trek from Pau by a half bike length, but failed in his bid to take the yellow jersey from Contador and gain time on his rival ahead of Saturday's time trial.
At the start of the three week race, the 38 year old Texan had hoped to be a contender in his last Tour. That aspiration vanished in the debut in the Alps in Stage 8, when crashes slowed him down three times and he lagged in the climbs.
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After Thursday's final mountain day, his expectations came down again. Asked what the chances were now of winning a stage, Armstrong replied: "Slim to none."
"The most important thing was that we stay ahead in the team GC, and that's what we did," Armstrong said. He's in 23rd place overall 37:58 behind Contador. By finishing more than a minute ahead of everybody else, Schleck and Contador gave themselves a cushion for their drive to the Champs Elysees podium.
Seven time champion Lance Armstrong, who finished 4:12 behind the leading duo in 17th place, again revised down his hopes at the Tour.
They're now poised for the same 1 2 finish they had last year.
COL DU TOURMALET, France Alberto Contador never wavered.
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It was a day of scaled down and revised expectations.
With only three days of racing left before Sunday's finish in Paris, and two of the stages unlikely to alter the top of the standings, the two men knew that Thursday's leg was crucial.
The wild card now is Saturday's 32.3 mile time trial, a discipline in which Contador excels. Schleck said before Thursday's stage that he'd need to pick up a minute on Contador to have a chance of victory.
"My dad always used to say that the one who did a good time trial, he fell off the bike when he finished," Schleck said, "and that's what I plan to do on Saturday."
Under a blistering attack from Andy Schleck, the Spaniard tightened his grip on a third Tour de France title in four years by matching every acceleration his rival threw at him during the ride up a fabled Pyrenean climb in Thursday's 17th stage.
is minimal, it seems Contador would have to have a bad day Saturday, Schleck an incredible one, or the Spaniard would have to crash for the Luxembourger to take the yellow jersey.
"He was really so strong and at the end, the sprint for me was not the most important thing," said Contador, who finished in the same time to remain in front by 8 seconds. "Today, the most important thing for me was not to lose time."
There are strong time trial riders behind them, but the nearest contender Euskaltel Euskadi rider Samuel Sanchez of Spain isn't considered one of them and he's 3:32 back in third.
On the Tourmalet, he repeatedly turned around, at times speaking to Contador or trying to catch his gaze in an attempt at mind games. The Spaniard never took the bait.
Contador eyeing 3rd title in 4 years
"I still have to reach Paris, and it won't be easy," he said.
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