LE-GRAND-BORNAND, France – Alberto Contador closed in on the overall victory at the Tour de France on Wednesday after finishing second behind Frank Schleck in the 17th stage as the race left the Alps.
Lance Armstrong trailed by more than two minutes and fell from second to fourth place overall in the 105-mile ride from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand — seen by many as the toughest stage this year. The stage likely ended any realistic chance Armstrong had of overtaking his Astana teammate, and the seven-time champion will now have to fight for a place on the podium instead.
Contador held on to the yellow jersey by staying with Schleck of Luxembourg and his younger brother Andy in a three-man breakaway at the end of the stage. Andy Schleck finished third while Armstrong was fifth, 2:18 back.
"I'm very proud of myself — I'm proud of my brother," Frank Schleck said.
The Schleck brothers both leapfrogged Armstrong in the overall standings, with Andy 2:26 behind Contador in second place and Frank 3:25 behind in third. Armstrong trails Contador by 3:55.
The elder Schleck collected his second stage win at cycling's premiere event — after winning another Alpine stage in 2006 up to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station.
The Schlecks were the main attackers against Contador during the final two punishing climbs in the stage, and at times took turns relaying each other or trying to shake the Spaniard.
"We bet everything — make or break it," Frank Schleck said." We deserved to win ... we attacked one after another. We countered well — it was a good tactic."
Andreas Kloeden, an Astana teammate of Contador and Armstrong who is also strong in time trials, placed sixth in the stage — 2:27 back — and is fifth overall, 4:44 off the lead.
At one point in the last climb, up the Colombiere pass, Contador, Kloeden and the Schlecks were alone in front. The Spaniard then surprisingly mounted his own attack on the two brothers, but only his German teammate got dropped.
Contador said he had discussed attacking the Schlecks with team manager Johan Bruyneel by radio, who then told him to discuss it with Kloeden.
"He told me, 'Go for it,"' Contador said.
Levi Leipheimer, an Astana teammate who crashed out of the Tour after breaking his wrist, tweeted: "Well that wasn't a good move!!"
"If Andreas finishes 4th in GC by less than 2 [minutes] from 3rd, we know where he lost it," Leipheimer wrote, referring to the general classification.
Armstrong and Kloeden are stronger time-trial riders than the Schlecks and could make up ground in the 25.2-mile race against the clock in Annecy on Thursday for Stage 18.
In the other individual time trial this Tour, the first stage in Monaco, Armstrong was 20 seconds faster than Andy Schleck and nearly a minute quicker than Frank Schleck — and that was over only 9.63 miles.
The 37-year-old American knows Le Grand-Bornand all too well. It was here that he won the third of three straight stage victories in the 2004 Tour.
The Tour ends Sunday in Paris.