Contador Maintains Tour De France Lead

The Tour De France is heading toward the finish, and it looks like this year's event is Alberto Contador's to lose. The Spaniard has an 8-second lead over his nearest rival, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg as they head into the last stages.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Tour De France is down to a duel between two men. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck are only eight seconds apart with three days of racing to go. Yesterday, they attacked each other all the way up the Pyrenees, but neither rider could break away and they rolled across the finish line almost simultaneously. Eleanor Beardsley was there and she joins us now to talk about that and other various things on the tour. Hello.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us a feel of what the race was like yesterday.

BEARDSLEY: Well, first of all, let me tell you about the conditions. It rained off and on all day and a thick fog had descended over the mountains, so you could hardly see your hand in front of your face, much less a bicycle in front of you.

Secondly, the 108-mile stage went straight up into the mountains and finished on an 11-mile climb. It's known as an hors categorie climb. That means it's outside the category. It's harder than even category one. It's off the scale.

And the place where it finished is called the Tourmalet Pass. And this is a fabled and cursed finishing place for the tour. In 1910, when the tour organizers first put it on the route, the riders cursed them and called them assassins. So it couldn't have gotten any harder, any higher. The conditions couldn't have been any worse. At one point sheep ran across the route.

But what we saw, nevertheless, was a competition between, quite rightly, the world's two best cyclists. Schleck - Andy Schleck set a punishing pace. He wanted to beat Contador. He couldn't get rid of him. He just stayed there in his back tire, Contador. At one point, Contador accelerates. He can't get rid of Schleck. They leave the entire rest of the pack at least three minutes behind in the mist.

And they just fought it all the way up to the top and basically crossed the finish line together. Schleck was ahead by half a bike length, so he won the stage, but Contador kept his eight seconds. So this is a great cycling rivalry coming up again. And both guys are young, so we're going to see it for a while.

MONTAGNE: Of the two, who has the best chance of winning when the race ends in Paris on Sunday?

BEARDSLEY: Well, odds favor Contador, because on Saturday there's a 32-mile time trial, and that is Contador's forte. So Schleck, by his own admission, said he needed to get a minute on Contador yesterday, and he didn't do that. But he says he's not going to give up. So it's still up in the air, but most probably Contador.

MONTAGNE: Now, let's talk about a name that usually doesn't come up last, but it's going to be in this instance, Lance Armstrong and his team Radio Shack.

BEARDSLEY: That's right. Well, Renee, we can say that it's no longer the Tour de Lance, as people used to call it. His team, Radio Shack, is in first place. That means they have the best cumulative time.

Now, what's interesting is Armstrong has transformed from a lead rider to what is called a domestique. And in French, domestique basically means a maid. These are the riders that help the lead rider. They block their wind. They get water bottles for them and things like that.

So, you know, Lance Armstrong, he could've left the race when he fell. He crashed like three times in an Alpine stage, and that meant he couldn't win. But he said, no, I'm staying in to help. So people respect that.

He's got staying power. He showed humility. And what's really funny is President Sarkozy visited the race yesterday. And he's an avid cyclist and a Lance Armstrong fan. And Armstrong described their meeting as the meeting of two old guys who like to ride bikes.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's great. And the race is over on Sunday. Thank you for talking to us about this, Eleanor Beardsley.

BEARDSLEY: It's been my pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Eleanor's been following the Tour de France for NPR.

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