COL DU TOURMALET, France Defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain virtually secured a third Tour de France title Thursday after staying with yellow-jersey rival Andy Schleck all the way to the top of the legendary Col du Tourmalet in the pivotal 17th stage.
Schleck won the prestigious stage, but Contador crossed the line nearly shoulder to shoulder with the Luxembourg rider after the pair had broken clear in the final six miles.
Contador appeared completely at ease as Schleck set a punishing pace up the final climb. The Spaniard even moved in front at one point but didnt appear concerned about trying to cross the line first.
Contador retained his eight-second lead in the overall standings and looks destined to be wearing yellow when the Tour rides into Paris for Sundays largely ceremonial final stage.
Schleck knew he needed to pick up time on Contador in the last stage in the Pyrenees, but he could not break the Spaniard. They completed the 108.1 miles from Pau to the top of the Col du Tourmalet in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 29 seconds.
I still have to reach Paris, and it wont be easy, Contador said. But the most important thing for me (Thursday) was that I didnt lose time.
Third place went to Spains Joaquin Rodriguez, who pulled away from the rest of the chasing group and finished on his own, 1:18 back.
Time gaps still are expected to change in Saturdays time trial, but that is Contadors specialty. Schleck had acknowledged before Thursdays stage that he would need to pick up at least a minute on Contador if he was to have a chance of winning the Tour.
Although he changed his tune Thursday evening and insisted he still had a chance, Schleck also was looking to the future.
Ive got everything that it takes, Ive got the best skills to win the Tour. Maybe next year, maybe two years, but I want to win it, thats for sure, he said.
Schleck and Contador braved fog and rain, as well as the flags of supporters hitting them in the face during the climb.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was on top of the mountain to greet them.
The image of Alberto and Andy side by side was a great image of sport, Sarkozy said. Alberto may win, but Andy will win next year.
Earlier, 2008 champion Carlos Sastre made a valiant attempt to make up more than nine minutes separating him from Contador by breaking out alone in search of the lead group after 15 miles, aided by his teammate Ignatas Konovalovas, who had dropped back from the leaders.
But he wasnt able to bridge the gap and was caught by the pack just before the start of the Tourmalet. Sastre later slipped further back.
Lance Armstrong was with the Schleck-Contador group until Schleck made his move 6 miles from the summit of the Tourmalet. The Texan finished 17th, 4:12 off the pace.
Anthony Charteau of France finished in 27th place, having done enough to guarantee he would be the overall winner of the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey for the Tours best climber.
In a lighter moment on the second climb of the day, the Col du Soudor, the peloton briefly was disrupted by a group of sheep that crossed the road just as the riders arrived. No rider fell but several were forced to brake hard and stop.
The Pyrenees are behind the riders now, and after four days of struggling at the back over the climbs, the sprinters likely are to fight out the win in todays 18th stage, a 123-mile mostly flat ride from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux, France.
Thor Hushovd of Norway holds the green jersey as points leader for the top sprinter ahead of Italys Alessandro Pettachi, with Mark Cavendish of Britain also in the hunt for the stage win and hoping for the green jersey when the riders reach Paris.
Associated Press Writer Naomi Koppel contributed to this report.