Contador leads as Tour de France begins its 18th stage; crucial day for top sprinters

By Naomi Koppel, AP
Friday, July 23, 2010

Tour de France riders set out on flat 18th stage

SALIES-DE-BEARN, France — The riders of the Tour de France have set out on the 18th of the 20 stages of this year’s Tour de France, a day that could be decisive for those fighting for the green jersey of best sprinter.

The flat 123-mile trek from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux in the country’s southwest is expected to end in a sprint finish on Friday.

No change is expected to the overall standings. Defending champion Alberto Contador of Spain holds an eight-second lead over Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, a gap that is expected to widen during the time-trial stage on Saturday.

The race ends in Paris on Sunday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

COL DU TOURMALET, France (AP) — Defending champion Alberto Contador can’t quite sit back and enjoy his third victory in the Tour de France — he still has to ride a time-trial — but on Friday he will happily let the spotlight fall on the race’s sprinters.

Contador did the hard work a day earlier, sticking with his biggest rival Andy Schleck and retaining the leader’s yellow jersey in Thursday’s 17th stage, even if Schleck finally won the day atop the famed Col du Tourmalet.

Contador maintained his eight-second edge over the Luxembourg rider, a lead that is expected to widen when the Spaniard tackles a discipline that is his specialty: Saturday’s time-trial.

Schleck had estimated he needed to open at least a one-minute lead on Contador, but failed to pick up any time in the final mountain stage of this year’s race.

Friday’s 18th stage is completely different, and offers no opportunity for either rider to gain ground on the other over a flat 123-mile trek from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux.

The first of the major jerseys has been decided — Anthony Charteau of France is the King of the Mountains — and Schleck has the white jersey for best young rider all but locked up. Friday will give a big indication of who’s going to win the green jersey as best sprinter.

Thor Hushovd of Norway currently holds that distinction, ahead of Italy’s Alessandro Pettachi, with Mark Cavendish of Britain also in the hunt for the stage win and hoping to claim the green in Paris.

Hushovd has one stage win already, Pettacchi two and Cavendish three. But it’s not just about winning stages — there are points for lower positions, and for intermediate sprints during the race.

“I am coming out of the Pyrenees stronger,” said Hushovd, who achieved a coup in the big mountain stage on Tuesday when he managed to stay with the peloton and finished 10th, picking up sprint points and regaining the green jersey while his rivals languished far behind the pack.

“I have the green jersey on my shoulders and I don’t want to give it up. Bordeaux will be a sprint and I have to be very attentive. The best way to defend the jersey would be to win the stage,” he said.

Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong finished Thursday’s stage 4:12 behind the leading duo in 17th place. The Texan is in 23rd place overall — 37:58 behind Contador.

Riders will be hoping for better weather on Friday. Thursday’s stage to the Col du Tourmalet, seen by many as the most prestigious of the event, took place in fog and rain that at times was torrential. The riders also had to deal with streakers, sheep in the road and overenthusiastic fans running alongside the bikes.

Contador did what he needed to do, and appeared to let up at the end, almost handing Schleck his second stage win of the Tour.

“He was really so strong and at the end, the sprint for me was not the most important thing,” Contador said. “Today, the most important thing for me was not to lose time.”

Although Schleck insisted he still had a chance, he was also looking to the future.

“I’ve got everything that it takes, I’ve got the best skills to win the Tour. Maybe next year, maybe two years, but I want to win it, that’s for sure,” he said.

Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.

will not be displayed