Contador increases Tour de France lead

Spain's Alberto Contador stood toe-to-toe with the Schleck brothers on the final day in the Alps to strengthen his grip on the Tour de France's yellow jersey today.

Spain's Alberto Contador stood toe-to-toe with the Schleck brothers on the final day in the Alps to strengthen his grip on the Tour de France's yellow jersey today.

Saxo Bank's Frank Schleck was the winner of the 17th stage, a gruelling trek of 169.5 kilometres from Bourg St Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand, and he was followed over the line by Astana's Contador then brother and team-mate Andy Schleck.

With Lance Armstrong and Britain's Bradley Wiggins, second and third respectively in the general classification at the start of the day, losing vital minutes today, Contador finds himself two minutes and 26 seconds clear in the standings.

Andy Schleck jumps from fifth to second, with brother Frank 59 seconds further behind in third.

Ireland's Nicolas Roche finished in 41st place, 11 minutes 50seconds behind Schleck.

Armstrong and Wiggins were dropped by Contador and the Schlecks on the testing Col de Romme, the day's penultimate climb, and could not recover.

Armstrong finished fifth - 2.18mins back - to slip to fourth in the GC while Wiggins, who finally succumbed in the mountains, ended seventh and drops three places to sixth overall. The Briton is close to five minutes off the pace now.

Tomorrow's individual time trial will shake up the standings even more, but Contador looks in prime shape to add another Tour title to the one he claimed in 2007.

"He is difficult to beat," Frank Schleck said of Contador, who did not contest the finish.

The elder Schleck added on French television station France 2: "We knew this morning we had nothing to lose. Andy and myself were fifth and eighth in the GC so all we aimed for was a stage win.

"I thought we deserved to win. We broke the field on the Col de Romme, attacking one after the other. The tactic was risky but if we wanted to win something, we had to put a lot in."

Much of today's action centred on the Col de Romme, a tough 10km climb that completely split the field.

Before that, green-jersey holder Thor Hushovd had extended his cushion in the sprinters' classification by producing a surprise break 123km out.

The Norwegian sped away at the base of Col des Saisies, the day's second climb, and led the field for 85km in all.

In that time, he harvested a total of 12 points at intermediary sprints at Praz-Sur-Arly and Cluses to stretch his lead over Britain's Mark Cavendish in the battle for the green jersey to 30 points.

Hushovd was only reeled in at the bottom of the Col de Romme, Spain's Carlos Barredo the first of an original chasing group of 20 riders to go past him 38km from the finish. Contador and his GC rivals had been biding their time up to that point but they quickly took command and were soon leading the field.

When Andy Schleck attacked halfway up, only his brother, Contador and Andreas Kloden could follow as Armstrong, Wiggins and the rest were left trailing.

By the top of the climb, the front four had a lead of 63 seconds and they were not to be caught.

After climbing the Col de la Colombiere, it was all set up for a battle for the stage win, but Contador eased up to allow Frank Schleck to celebrate early. Andy Schleck raised his arms as he crossed the line to congratulate his brother.

Armstrong and Vincenzo Nibali dropped Wiggins near the end of the Col de la Colombiere and eventually caught the fading Kloden just before the finish.

Wiggins trailed home 3.07mins after the leaders but will expect to fare better in tomorrow's time trial in Annecy, as will Armstrong.

Cyril Dessel and Kenny van Hummel were riders to abandon the Tour today. The field is now down to 159.

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