Contador on pace to win tough Tour

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Contador on pace to win tough Tour

PAUILLAC, France - Alberto Contador said yesterday that he has been pushed to his absolute limits on his way to virtually securing a third yellow jersey triumph on the Tour de France.

“This year there were times when I wasn’t exactly in top form,” said Contador, who came close to losing his yellow jersey to Andy Schleck this weekend. “The race this year was particularly hard.”

Spain’s two-time champion went into the penultimate stage time trial on Saturday with only an eight-second lead on key rival Schleck.

And there was drama right to the wire as Schleck threatened to close his deficit early on before he ran out of juice and Contador came into his own in the latter half of the course.

In 2009, Contador beat Swiss Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara by three seconds in the final time trial to claim the stage and rubber-stamp his second yellow jersey triumph.

And despite finishing only 35th on Saturday, Schleck was just 31 seconds adrift and heading for a second consecutive Tour as runner-up.

Contador will now go into the final stage to Paris, which is not usually contended by the yellow jersey rivals, with a big lead on the Luxemburger.

Ironically, Schleck lost to Contador by a similar amount of time on stage 15 when the Spaniard counterattacked him moments before he suffered an untimely mechanical problem with his gears.

Contador admitted he feared for his yellow jersey throughout the 19th stage of the race.

“To be honest, I got some information that said I was five seconds behind Andy, and I started to panic,” added the Spaniard. “I started to think, ‘Oh my God, this is it, it’s over’. And I stayed that way until the finish line really.”

With Schleck pushing him so close, Contador knows he is in for a battle in the future.

But the Spaniard attempted to put that in perspective by claiming he was not as good as he should have been.

“I know Andy well, and he’s a great rider. He’s going to be a major rival for a long time,” said Contador. “But I think this year I wasn’t exactly at my best.

“Things eventually went well for me today but last night, for example, I didn’t sleep well and I also had a stomach ache.”

Contador also began the race with a cold, which forced him out of the Spanish time trial championships, and from then on it was about managing the dozens of little details that go into fighting for the race’s yellow jersey.

“A few days before the Tour I was on antibiotics, and I think this affected my form for the first week,” he added.

“From a mental point of view it was very complicated. I had to stay focused all the time, especially on the climbing stages.”

He added that teamwork played a big role this year.

“Our team perhaps wasn’t the strongest, but we really supported each other,” Contador said. “If you think about the efforts I had to make and the riders I had to follow on the climbs... this was the real key to my victory.”

As well as his climbing and time trial skills, Contador is also known for his ability to recuperate - a crucial ingredient in long stage races. However, it appears the other key to the 27-year-old Spaniard’s performance was his ability to handle pressure.

“I think it’s the dream of any rider when you’re small and you start cycling and you get on your bike,” he added. “From that moment you want to win the Tour. It’s the most beautiful race in the world but what goes with that is permanent tension and pressure. You feel the pressure from outside and from within yourself. You can’t imagine how relieved I am.”

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