Schleck Takes Stage Of Tour De France

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The riders in the Tour de France climbed to one of its highest stages on Thursday, as the competition reached its climax. Andy Schleck won the stage, but crossed the line nearly shoulder to shoulder with defending champion Alberto Contador. The race ends this Sunday in Paris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today was the last mountain stage of the Tour de France, with riders battling on the slopes of the Pyrenees. Lance Armstrong made a decent showing: He came in 17th out of 171 riders.

But it was the two lead riders who fought for dominance. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck kept tour fans on the edge of their mountainside seats for most of the day. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The day came down to a contest between the world's best climber, Spaniard Alberto Contador, and the world's youngest up-and-coming rider, Luxembourger Andy Schleck.

The battle took place on the Pyrenees' second-highest climb, up to the 7,000-foot Tourmalet Pass. Schleck, eight seconds behind Contador overall, knew he had to make time on the Spaniard if he wanted to have a chance to win the tour. He set a furious pace, but Contador always stayed on his wheel.

At six miles to go, Contador accelerated, but he couldn't lose Schleck, either.

(Soundbite of applause)

BEARDSLEY: The two men left the other riders behind in the mist and crossed the finish line, separated by less than a bike length. Schleck won the stage, but he's still eight second behind Contador. Bruce Hildenbrand is following the tour for magazine VeloNews.

Mr. BRUCE HILDENBRAND (VeloNews): Today we saw an incredible drama. You know, the Tour de France is not just about one rider going as hard as he can. It's about competition. You remember back in the Lance Armstrong days, when lance was racing against Jan Ullrich, that was the big rivalry.

So a great rivalry is developing here. They're both young guys. You know, Andy Schleck is just 25, and Contador is 27. So we'll see this rivalry around for a while.

BEARDSLEY: Towns and villages across the region have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the tour coming through the Pyrenees. In 1910, riders called race organizers assassins for making them climb the Tourmalet Pass. Today, riders set out in better spirits with a parade sendoff in the town of Po. Seventy-five-year-old Michel Delbess was one of the thousands who came out to watch the start.

Mr. MICHEL Delbess: (Through translator) The Tour de France is the biggest of sporting events for us. It brings everyone together, no matter what their age. No one is left out. It's a beautiful sport and a great show.

BEARDSLEY: All day long, thousands of people streamed up the tiny mountain road to try to get a place at the finish line. The green velvet slopes of the Pyrenees were speckled with pup tents amid the confused sheep. Some fans had been camping for days to save their spot.

Unidentified Woman: Are you going to talk about the cycling?

BEARDSLEY: Londoners Jonathan DeVilliers and Isabelle Best rode their bikes to the top with daughters Penelope(ph) and Matilde(ph) in tow.

Mr. JONATHAN DeVILLIERS: It's nice because you dump the car, and then you ride up the route, and you get some of the acclaim that the pros do, especially when you're pulling two little kids.

BEARDSLEY: The dense fog and intermittent rain didn't seem to dampen enthusiasm. Bright-colored flags were worn like cloaks and waved as the riders finished. Whoever wins the tour on Sunday, both Contador and Schleck can go to Paris satisfied that they tested each other to the limit today.

The two men are rivals are also friends and embraced at the finish after fighting all the way up the Pyrenees.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News at the Tourmalet Pass in the French Pyrenees.

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