Tour de France Stage 9 whittles contenders down to Schleck, Contador

After Stage 8 of the Tour de France took Lance Armstrong out of the race, two other possible contenders – Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre – lost critical time. Now it's a race between defending champion Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.

Bas Czerwinski/AP
Alberto Contador, left, gestures as he talks to new overall leader Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, right, as they climb towards Madeleine pass during the 9th stage of the Tour de France Tuesday.

Only halfway into the 2010 Tour de France, there are effectively only two real contenders remaining for the coveted yellow jersey: defending champion Alberto Contador and rising star Andy Schleck.

The duo, recharged after Monday’s rest day, rode away from the peloton on Stage 9’s final climb, the grueling Col de la Madeleine.

Forty kilometers later, they cruised across the finish line in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with an iron grip on the overall classification. Their closest rival, 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez, trails Contador by two minutes and four seconds.

“Right now it looks like it’s just Alberto versus me,” says Schleck, who has a 41-second lead over the Spaniard after more than 43 hours of racing.

IN PICTURES: Scenes from the 2010 Tour de France

Evans’ meltdown

One of the main favorites to win this year's Tour, Team BMC’s Cadel Evans, suffered an epic meltdown today.

The Australian, who became the overall race leader after Sunday’s stage up to Morzine-Avoriaz, couldn’t keep up with the tempo set by Contador’s Astana team on today’s final climb. Visibly in pain and wearing blue athletic tape on his left arm after a crash on Sunday, Evans ended the day almost eight minutes behind Schleck of Team Saxo Bank.

After the race, he sat on the steps of the BMC team bus conferring with his team managers and trying to figure out where it all went wrong.

“It’s not my normal self to be dropped from a group like that,” he told reporters packed around the bus. “I’m pretty sure it’s all over this year.”

Main courses

These past two stages in the Alps were supposed to be appetizers.

Before the race started, organizers said they wanted to highlight the Pyrénées for the 100th anniversary of the mountain range’s inclusion in the Tour.

But on a Tour that some say is one of the toughest in years, much of the competition for the win has concluded before the second week of the 23-day race is even over.

Lance Armstrong cracked on Stage 8’s Col de la Ramaz and fell out of contention, saying 'My Tour's finished.'

In addition to Evans's meltdown today, Armstrong’s RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer and Cervélo’s Carlos Sastre lost critical time.

Schleck challenges Contador

There will be little opportunity for them or anyone else to gain ground over the next few days, as the race heads into smaller mountains and flat stages – sprinters’ territory.

Then come the Pyrénées. Sunday’s finish in Ax-3-Domaines, a popular ski area near the Spanish border, will kick off the next round of fireworks.

For those who can’t wait, they’ve already begun in the media.

“If [Contador] wants to win, he has to attack me,” Schleck said after the race.

Overall standings after Stage 9:

1. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
2. Alberto Contador (Astana) +0'41"
3. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel – Euskadi) +2'45"
4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +2'58"
5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma – Lotto) +3'31"

Top US riders:
6. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +3'59"
25. Christopher Horner RadioShack) +11'06"
31. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +15'54"

Full results here

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