Contador wins Tour's 18th stage
Lance Armstrong sits 3rd overall
Alberto Contador won the final time trial in the Tour de France on Thursday, and Lance Armstrong moved up one spot to third place overall.
Contador now looks all but assured of his second Tour victory after increasing his overall lead in the 18th stage, in which riders embarked one-by-one down the start ramp for the 40.5-kilometre leg in and around Annecy.
The 2007 champion finished the stage in 48 minutes, 31 seconds — beating Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland by three seconds. Russia's Mikhail Ignatiev was third, 15 seconds back.
"I went all out," said Contador, adding that his earpiece radio linking him with Astana team managers stopped working during the run, and that he was worried about Cancellara's skill at time trials.
"Of course, what I especially wanted was to think about general class. A stage victory was less important," the Spaniard said. "I'm very happy. I didn't expect it."
Armstrong, a seven-time winner of the cycling race, was 16th, 1:30 behind. But he easily overcame an overall 30-second deficit to Frank Schleck, who began the day in third place but slipped to sixth overall after finishing 2:34 behind Contador.
After the stage, Armstrong said he had "mixed emotions. Sixteenth in a time trial is not a good result, but my ambition is to get on the podium, so I have to be happy with that."
Schleck and his younger brother Andy, from Luxembourg, had bumped Armstrong from second place to fourth a day earlier in the final, punishing Alpine stage.
"I suffered," Armstrong said of the time trial. "I probably started too hard and maybe I was just empty from yesterday and those cramps I suffered at the end."
Overall, Contador leads Andy Schleck by 4:11. Armstrong is 5:25 back and Britain's Bradley Wiggins is fourth, 5:36 behind. Germany's Andreas Kloeden, an Astana teammate of Contador and Armstrong, is fifth, 5:38 back. Frank Schleck is 5:59 behind in sixth.
Garmin-Slipstream rider and Victoria native Ryder Hesjedal is 55th overall after finishing Thursday's time trail 43rd.
While the stage was mostly flat, riders had to contend with a midlevel climb, which snaked upward for 3.7 kilometres with magnificent vistas over a hill-ringed lake.
Several riders, including British time-trial specialist David Millar, said the course layout favoured climbers because of that ascent.
"I felt like I had stopped dead in my tracks" on the climb, Millar said.
The race against the clock started under cloudy skies. The sun eventually broke through, but rain doused the course by late afternoon and left patches of water on the roads.
Armstrong was relatively strong at the start, only 29 seconds slower than Contador through the second intermediate time check at the 25-kilometre mark.
His main time deficit came on the climb, at about 28.5 kilometres in. There, he was 1:12 behind Contador.
"I felt good at the beginning, I felt smooth, but there was a tail wind, so maybe everyone felt good," Armstrong said. "I just wasn't that strong on the climb."
After the stage, the 37-year-old Texan announced that he and U.S. electronics vendor Radio Shack are forming a new cycling team that will compete in next year's Tour.
The biggest remaining race challenge is an uphill finish at Mont Ventoux on Saturday — which Armstrong calls the toughest ascent in France — a day before the race ends on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.
The threat for Armstrong is again likely to be the Schleck brothers, who have matched the Americans on the climbs this year.
"I want to protect my position with Andy climbing so well," Armstrong said, "[I] just gotta watch for the moves and don't let him get away."