|Defending champion Alberto Contador remains optimistic despite losing ground during the grueling climbs through the Pyrenees. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)|
Contador losing the uphill battle
LUZ-ARDIDEN, France - Alberto Contador, the defending Tour de France champion, lost precious time to his main rivals yesterday in a grueling stage in which he had been expected to begin a long-awaited push.
After a problematic opening stage, Contador had been shadowing the other favorites for the first week and a half of this Tour, a pattern that continued until the final seconds yesterday. On the last of three stiff climbs toward this ski resort in the Pyrenees, Contador, breathing heavily and visibly struggling, was unable to keep pace with the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, and another leading rider, Cadel Evans.
Contador, with the Saxo Bank-SunGard team, lost 13 seconds in the overall standings to Andy Schleck, the runner-up last year, and 33 seconds to Frank Schleck, twice a fifth-place finisher. Both brothers ride with the Leopard Trek team of Luxembourg. Contador also fell another 13 seconds behind Evans, of the BMC team, who has been riding well this year.
If Contador is worried about his chances, he did not show it after the 12th stage, which began in Cugnaux, near Toulouse, 131 miles earlier.
“I didn’t feel quite right in my legs, but it’s going better and better,’’ he told reporters.
Against the odds, and even his own prediction Wednesday, Thomas Voeckler of the Europcar team, held on to the yellow jersey by staying with the race favorites until the final seconds, despite not being known as a strong climber.
Samuel Sanchez, a Spaniard with the Euskaltel Euskadi team, won the stage in 6:01:15. Sanchez, who finished fourth overall last year, is now in eighth place, behind Contador.
None of the favorites attacked on the way up the Tourmalet, although Leopard Trek showed strong discipline, with a veteran German rider, Jens Voigt, in pole position at the head of the peloton. For Andy Schleck, the pass caused a bit of trouble, as he stopped twice, once to change a wheel and a second time to right himself after touching wheels with another rider.
At the top of the Tourmalet, some riders stuffed their jerseys with newspapers to protect themselves against a foggy chill for the high-speed descent, where Sanchez passed Jeremy Roy and Geraint Thomas.
Then, on the final climb to Luz-Ardiden, the action heated up in the peloton. After a quick discussion with his brother, Andy Schleck went on the attack. Then Frank Schleck moved ahead of the group. Contador and Voeckler were left behind by a number of riders.
“I don’t think today was a day made for us, but I don’t think it was a decisive day,’’ Andy Schleck said in a television interview. Of Contador, he added, “He’s not unbeatable, that’s clear.’’