Time trial adds another chapter to rivalry

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.

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":

2007: Three-way power struggle

Contador, Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer rolled down the start ramp in Cognac with just 2:49 separating first and third place in the 2007 Tour. Leipheimer, then riding for Discovery Channel, won the stage by covering the 34.5-mile course that ended in Angouleme 51 seconds faster than Evans; Contador, who had inherited the yellow jersey after Michael Rasmussen's shocking ouster by his own team, rode to survive rather than win, and finished 2:18 behind Leipheimer. The three men on the podium wound up just 31 seconds apart, the smallest spread in history.

2005: The Rasmussen follies

The Danish rider known as "The Chicken" had no illusions of being a good time trialer, but on the final Saturday of the 2005 Tour, he was wearing the best climber's polka dot jersey and harbored faint hopes of finishing on the podium. Rasmussen was sitting in third place overall, more than 2 minutes ahead of German star Jan Ullrich, when he set out on the rolling, technical loop that began and ended in St. Etienne. The voyage was not a smooth one. Two crashes and several mechanical problems later, he finished more than seven minutes slower than Ullrich and tumbled to seventh place. Lance Armstrong logged the best time to notch the last individual Tour stage victory of his career.

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.

1997: Malfunction junction

Bjarne Riis' bid to repeat as Tour champion in 1997 went south early in the race, and he committed to working for his young Telekom teammate Ullrich -- who rode into Paris in the leader's yellow jersey. But Riis still didn't like embarrassing himself, so when he faltered badly in the 39-mile time trial at Euro Disneyland, he took it out on his Pinarello bike, dismounting and heaving it into a ditch. Riis ultimately finished more than nine minutes off the pace set by Spain's Abraham Olano.

1989: The mother of all races

It's unlikely that any time trial could rival the drama of the 1989 edition in which Greg LeMond overtook France's Laurent Fignon in the standings on the final day of the Tour. LeMond rode an average speed of almost 34 mph over the 15-mile course from Versailles to Paris, making up 58 seconds to win by an eight-second margin. LeMond's equipment innovations, including the then-novel aerodynamic handlebars that enabled him to take a more streamlined position on the bike, helped him best Fignon, who was in pain from saddle sores and collapsed from his effort after the stage. The final stage has not been a time trial since.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.