The titanic tussle for the 2010 Tour de France title is set to end in Alberto Contador’s favour after the defending champion increased his advantage in today’s penultimate stage.
Contador (Astana) held an eight-second overall lead over Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) ahead of today’s 52-kilometre time-trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac.
The Spaniard finished the route in one hour six minutes 39 seconds, 31 seconds ahead of Schleck, who is set to finish runner-up for the second successive year.
Schleck finished in 1hr 7mins 10secs today and is now 39 seconds adrift overall ahead of tomorrow’s final day, which will – barring a freak accident or illness - see Contador crowned the Tour champion for the third time in four years.
World and Olympic time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara (Team Saxo Bank), who won the Rotterdam prologue on July 3, clocked 1.00:56 through the vineyards north of Bordeaux to win today’s stage, but Contador was the real victor.
Contador took the race lead on Monday in Bagneres-de-Luchon in controversial circumstances, taking advantage of Schleck's slipped chain - a move contrary to racing etiquette - and turning a 31-second deficit into a lead in a 39-second swing.
The duo were inseparable in an epic duel up the Col du Tourmalet on Thursday, handing Contador – the more accomplished practitioner against the clock – the advantage.
The gusty conditions got worse and turned into a head wind, meaning Cancellara’s time set earlier in the day was unlikely be threatened.
But the Swiss ace’s performance was irrelevant in the duel for the maillot jaune.
The starting positions for the time-trial were in reverse general classification order, with Contador following Schleck down the starting ramp, three minutes behind.
Schleck, the 2009 Tour runner-up to Contador, finished 116 places and 42 seconds behind Contador in the 8.9km prologue which began the Tour.
But today the Luxembourg rider put in a sterling display.
At the first intermediate time check, after 18.2km, Contador was two seconds slower than Schleck, meaning his yellow jersey lead was cut to six seconds.
Unofficial time checks showed Schleck’s maximum time gain at five seconds - putting him three behind Contador overall.
However, after 36.2km, at the second official time check, Contador was six seconds ahead, extending his overall advantage to 14 seconds.
With 6.6km remaining – at the third official time check – Contador was 17 seconds ahead of Schleck on the day, taking his lead to 25 overall.
Schleck slowed over the final stages as Contador pressed forward, extending his advantage further.
The smallest winning margin in Tour history was eight seconds when Greg LeMond finished ahead of Laurent Fignon in 1989.
Contador was involved in the next closest finish in Tour history, when he defeated Cadel Evans by 23 seconds in 2007.
But had Contador not taken the lead when Schleck’s mechanical problem happened, the duo would be on the same time entering tomorrow’s final day.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank) finished 11th today to overtake Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in the race for the third and final podium place.
Menchov was two minutes quicker than Sanchez today and now sits 2:01 behind Contador overall.
Spaniard Sanchez is now 3:40 adrift overall.
Ireland's Nicolas Roche - not a specialist against the clock - finished 53rd in today's stage, six minutes and 42 seconds behind Cancellara.
Roche now lies 15th in General Classification, on target to achieve his goal of a top-15 finish.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong (Team RadioShack) was 67th today but held on to 23rd place overall by four seconds ahead of Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), who was ninth today.
Armstrong finished third behind Contador and Schleck in 2009, with Wiggins fourth, but both have endured difficult Tours.
Armstrong will tomorrow complete his 13th and final Tour in Paris.
The Tour concludes with the 102.5km 20th stage from Longjumeau to the Champs Elysees.
The final day’s stage is usually a procession for the peloton, with a sprint finish which this year will determine the winner of the points classification’s green jersey.
Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese) is currently in possession of the maillot vert on 213 points, with Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team) 10 points behind and Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) six points further adrift.
There are 35 points awarded to the stage winner tomorrow.