LE-GRAND-BORNAND, France -- Alberto Contador closed in on victory at the Tour de France Wednesday after finishing second behind Frank Schleck in the 17th stage as the race left the Alps.
Lance Armstrong trailed by more than 2 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 Contador, and the seven-time Tour champion will now have to fight for a place on the podium instead.
Contador held on to the yellow jersey by staying with Schleck 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 stage featured five climbs, but the drama set in during the last two -- the super-steep Romme and Colombiere passes. Contador proved he simply cannot be shaken by his rivals in the mountains.
On the Colombiere, Armstrong couldn't keep up when Contador pulled away with Astana teammate Andreas Kloeden and the Schlecks, who ride for the Saxo Bank team.
Instead, Armstrong stayed back alongside Britain's Bradley Wiggins to protect Contador. Wiggins entered the day in third place overall and would have been helped by any effort from Armstrong to close the gap to the leaders.
So the Texan decided to wait, for a while. With about 8.7 miles left, Armstrong stepped on the gas to leave Wiggins behind.
"I couldn't find my acceleration to go with the other guys," Armstrong said. "I was there stuck with Wiggins. I had to wait until it got steeper, when you knew you could definitely go away.
"I probably should have gone with the early acceleration."
Armstrong isn't ruling out second place on the podium.
"Yes, it's still my goal, I think it's possible," he said.
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, 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."
When Contador, Kloeden and the Schlecks were alone in front on the Colombiere, the Spaniard 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 advised him to take it up 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, or overall standings.
Armstrong, Kloeden and Wiggins 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.
Kloeden finished sixth in the stage and sits fifth overall, 4:44 behind Contador. Wiggins, a three-time Olympic pursuit champion, is sixth overall, 4:53 behind, after finishing seventh in the stage.
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.
"I just need to work hard on the time-trial tomorrow," Armstrong said. "I've been careful today."
The Schlecks believe that even if they don't fare well in the time-trial, they could recover any lost time in the race culmination Saturday -- an uphill finish at the Mont Ventoux, which Armstrong calls the toughest climb in France.
Politicians nosed in on Wednesday's stage. French President Nicolas Sarkozy rode in a car on the course route, while Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker spoke by telephone with the Schleck brothers to praise their performance.
The Tour ends July 26.
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