|ESPN.com: Tour de France 2010||[Print without images]|
PAUILLAC, France -- For the first third of Saturday's decisive Tour de France time trial, the invisible rubber band that seemed to connect Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck at their slender hips didn't stretch much at all. Then, suddenly, it began to contract, and for a few brief moments, Schleck, three minutes ahead of Contador on the course, stunningly slingshotted a few seconds ahead of him in cumulative time.
|Andy Schleck rode arguably the best time trial of his career, but still finished the day 39 seconds behind overall leader Alberto Contador.|
It wasn't supposed to be that close. That's what Contador had counted on after he was unable or unwilling to risk extricating himself from Schleck's slipstream on the climb of the Col du Tourmalet last Thursday and conceded the stage win to Schleck after hanging on his wheel all the way up the mountain.
The time trial was supposed to provide a cushion, not erode Contador's eyebrow-thin, eight-second lead over Schleck. But Contador's stomach churned the night before the time trial, and he slept poorly. While Schleck powered through the first half of the course, Contador looked fidgety and ill at ease in the saddle.
In the end, Schleck's best still couldn't overcome a less than superlative effort by Contador on these windblown roads through some of the most picturesque wine country in the world. The snapping sound was almost audible when Contador inevitably pulled free.
The final margin -- 39 seconds -- is exactly and spookily the same as the time Contador gained on Schleck in Stage 15 in the Pyrenees when the challenger, then leading the race, was derailed by a dropped chain on the climb of the Port de Bales.
Barring accident in Sunday's sprint finale in Paris, where overall contenders simply try to stay clear of trouble, the 27-year-old Spanish rider clinched his third Tour de France and the fifth straight three-week Grand Tour he has entered. But his dominance is clearly measured in increments rather than huge gaps now, and this time trial could be remembered as a tipping point in what looks to be an enduring rivalry.
Here are a few other memorable moments from recent years in what some call "the race of truth":
2003: Street smarts The best chance any rider had to dethrone Armstrong during his seven-year streak came in 2003, when various mishaps and mistakes left him just 65 seconds ahead of Ullrich heading into the final time trial from Pornic to Nantes on the Atlantic coast. Ullrich went for broke on the rain-slicked 30-mile course and saw his hopes disintegrate when he crashed in a roundabout, skidding on his side into a protective barrier. Armstrong sat up and rode conservatively as soon as he heard the news on his earpiece, but still finished 11 seconds ahead of Ullrich on the stage, which was won by David Millar. A split in the peloton on the Champs-Elysees the next day made Armstrong's eventual winning margin 61 seconds, his narrowest ever.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.