Stage is set for Contador

Schleck, Armstrong face uphill challenge

By Jamey Keaten
Associated Press / July 25, 2009

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AUBENAS, France - Mark Cavendish won another stage of the Tour de France yesterday. It was the fifth one the 24-year-old Englishman has won this year, the first racer to win five stages in a single Tour since Lance Armstrong in 2004.

“This is a high point in my career,’’ Cavendish told French TV.

There are only two days of racing left.

And Cavendish is in 128th place.

Nearly three hours in front of Cavendish is Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion. The Spaniard leads Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck by 4 minutes 11 seconds and Astana teammate Lance Armstrong by 5:21 heading into the last big stage - the 104-mile ride today from Montelimar to a punishing finish up Mont Ventoux in the Alps.

“It’s really hard. I’d very much like there not to be a climb,’’ Contador said, referring to the widely dreaded mountain. “There’s a lot of headwind.’’

The race ends tomorrow in Paris, with what is usually a ceremonial ride on the Champs-Elysees for the rider in the yellow jersey.

Cavendish edged Thor Hushovd of Norway and Gerald Ciolek of Germany on the relatively flat, 111-mile ride from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas. They all finished in 3 hours 50 minutes 35 seconds. The average speed was 29 miles per hour.

Armstrong, the seven-time champion, had the same time. The Texan trimmed four seconds off his deficit to Contador and Schleck.

“I’m sure that I’m going to suffer because it’s a really long stage and it’s going to be complicated,” Contador said on the Tour’s website.

Contador, whom Armstrong and other Astana riders have at times criticized for an apparent lack of teamwork, says his first job is to win the race - but he’ll lend a hand to Armstrong if he can.

With only one big climb left in the race, the 26-year-old Spaniard is all but a lock for a second Tour victory. He also won in 2007.

“My priority is to protect the jersey up to Paris, but if it’s compatible that I help someone from the team - for example, Lance - I’ll do it without question,’’ Contador said.

The extra four seconds that Armstrong collected by riding among the 12-man sprinters’ group could come in handy because he is closely trailed in the overall standings.

Bradley Wiggins of Britain, a three-time Olympic pursuit champion who has fared well in the mountains this year, is fourth - 15 seconds slower than Armstrong. Another Astana rider, Germany’s Andreas Kloeden, is in fifth, 17 seconds behind. Perhaps the top threat to Armstrong’s podium hopes is Schleck’s older brother, Frank. He is a strong climber who is sixth overall - 5:59 behind Contador and 38 seconds slower than Armstrong.

For all his prowess over the years, Armstrong has never won at Mont Ventoux.

“The attacks will come from the Schleck brothers,’’ Contador said. “I will not have to attack. I will ride conservatively.’’