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The pack during yesterday's stage.
The pack during yesterday's stage.
Image: AP Photo/Christophe Ena

Onwards and upwards for Contador after testing his legs on first climb

Today’s stage shouldn’t be as taxing as yesterday’s.
Jul 6th 2011, 12:09 PM 120 0

THE VERY FIRST sight of a hill at the Tour de France was enough to get Alberto Contador up out of his saddle in a narrow second-place finish behind stage winner Cadel Evans in the Tour de France yesterday.

The way the Spaniard led the final charge up a small but sharp climb late in the fourth stage gave him a timely confidence boost, especially when the mountains get really big.

The three-time Tour champion was fractionally beaten at the line by the Australian, a two-time Tour runner-up who is showing strong form early in the event.

“It was very close,” Evans said. “I didn’t know if I had it on the line myself.”

Evans, a former world champion, won the (107-mile trek from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne when he threw his bike over the line just before Contador, who thought he had won when he raised his hand in triumph.

But Contador did score a victory of sorts by shaving a few valuable seconds off another rival, Andy Schleck.

“I am happy. I wanted to see how my rivals were, to see if I could take some time off them,” Contador said. “It’s too early to be decisive.”

Contador beat Schleck by just 39 seconds to win last year’s Tour, and was 1 minute, 38 seconds behind him before yesterday’s stage. Now that gap is down to 1:30, perhaps not a great amount of time, but important for Contador.

“Losing seconds is not good, but it’s not catastrophic,” Schleck said. “I’m still optimistic, I want to win the Tour de France.”

Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd held onto the yellow jersey for another day, although he is not a Tour challenger and leads Evans by just a second overall. Still, Hushovd surprised even himself by holding on in the climb up to Mur-de-Bretagne.

“It was painful and I cracked up a bit in the climb — I was over my limit,” Hushovd said. “But then I thought about the yellow jersey and I gave it all I got. I’m proud of what I did.”

Hushovd’s Garmin-Cervelo manager, Jonathan Vaughters, was full of praise for his 33-year-old rider.

“Unbelievable effort … He’s a strong, strong man,” Vaughters said.

With the next three stages expected to be only moderately difficult, Hushovd believes he can keep the jersey until the race reaches the Massif Central mountains Saturday.

Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan was third yesterday, with all three riders clocking 4 hours, 11 minutes, 39 seconds.

Contador got off to a nightmarish start to the Tour when he was slowed down by a crash that split the peloton in the opening stage.

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Then he lost more time to Schleck after Sunday’s team time trial.

“Overall I am happy even though it’s a bit frustrating because the team has been working hard, we haven’t had much luck since the start of the Tour,” Contador said. “Getting the stage win would have been a great joy.”

The gloomy scenario had started for Contador even before the race did.

Contador tested positive for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol late in last year’s Tour and could yet be stripped of all his titles back to last July if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules against him next month.

Although he was cleared to race by the Spanish cycling federation, many fans have questioned his presence on the race and he has been jeered by some fans so far.

Schleck, who also was second behind Contador in 2009, wasn’t fooled into thinking he would get an easy ride this year.

“I never though he wouldn’t be (challenging),” Schleck said. “He had some bad luck on the first days and I knew his team wasn’t made for the time trial, so it’s not a surprise for me.”

- AP

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