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Contador faces test in Pyrenees, ready or not

Updated: July 13, 2011, 03:11


Johnny Hoogerland of The Netherlands adjusts the best climber's dotted jersey on the podium of the 10th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 158 kilometers (98.2 miles) starting in Aurillac and finishing in Carmaux, south central France, Tuesday July 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

ALBI, France (AP) Alberto Contador started the Tour de France as the overwhelming favorite after his explosive victory in the Tour of Italy.

But crashes, bad luck and hard-charging rivals are turning the Spanish star's bid to become the first rider in more than a decade to sweep the Italian and French tours into his hardest Tour de France yet.

In fact Contador's bid to win a fourth Tour de France since 2007 is looking more and more like the 2003 Tour won by former teammate and rival Lance Armstrong, who called it "definitely the hardest'' of his seven Tour de France victories.

The 11th stage Wednesday from Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur is a largely flat 104-mile route that will most likely shape up as a day for sprinters, with ace Mark Cavendish looking to bag his third stage victory this Tour and take revenge for a close loss Tuesday to arch-rival Andre Greipel.

That makes it the last day for Contador to recuperate in the pack from a series of bangs and bruises in the Tour's first half, before a punishing three-day traverse of the Pyrenees mountains beginning Thursday.

That's when Contador, his rivals and fans will start to get an answer to the question everyone has asked since the race started July 2 in western France.

Can Contador have recovered enough in the five weeks separating the end of the Giro and the start of the Tour to become the first man since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the two toughest cycling races in the world in the same season?

The Spaniard is racing under the weight of a looming decision in a doping case against him expected the week after the Tour ends. He tested positive for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour and traces of the drug were found in tests performed over the next three days. But the Spanish cycling federation cleared Contador of the positive test, accepting his explanation that he inadvertently consumed tiny doses of clenbuterol in contaminated beef.

The International Cycling Union and World Anti-Doping Agency appealed that ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The case originally was scheduled to be heard in June, but the CAS pushed the dates back to August, acceding to a request from Contador's legal team for more time to prepare. That cleared the way for the Spaniard to compete in this year's Tour from July 2-24.

He's also suffered a litany of minor bangs and bruises including a worrying bash to his knee Sunday after his handlebars became tangled with Vladimir Karpets' bike, damaging the same right knee he hurt earlier in the race.

The setbacks even prompted French sports daily L'Equipe to publish a speculative report Tuesday that said Contador could maybe consider dropping out of the Tour.

Contador quickly denied the report and after Tuesday's stage said his knee "is feeling better and better.''

"The idea did not even cross my mind,'' Contador said. "Go home? Yes, but not before the end of the Tour. I will do everything I can to reach Paris as the winner. I feel better.''

"Hopefully, another day in the peloton can make me ready for the big climbs,'' Contador said.

Wednesday he'll get that chance, needing only to mark rivals like Cadel Evans, Andy and Frank Schleck and Ivan Basso on the flat route out of the Massif Central, across rolling plains toward the first Pyreneen stage on Thursday.

After that, Contador will finally get a chance to show he's still the dominating climber he was in Italy in May, and begin to recoup the 1 minute 41 second deficit to Evans that he's dragged with him since the race's first stage, when he was caught out by a freak crash on a narrow road that split the peloton in two, leaving him stuck behind while his main rivals powered ahead.

On Tuesday, German sprinter Andre Greipel beat former teammate Mark Cavendish by a wheel's length in a dash to the line for his first win in cycling's showcase race.

French rider Thomas Voeckler kept the yellow jersey after nestling safely in the main pack for most of the 98.2-mile route from Aurillac to Carmaux.

Cavendish looked to have sealed his third stage win of this year's Tour, and 18th of his career, when he turned into the final straight and pedaled hard.

But Greipel timed his attack to perfection, storming past Cavendish in the last 20 meters with a late burst of speed to edge out his rival, punching the air in delight as he crossed the line.

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