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Contador tests his legs on first Tour climb

Updated: July 06, 2011, 03:42


MUR-DE-BRETAGNE, France (AP) The very first sight of a hill at the Tour de France was enough to get Alberto Contador up out of his saddle in a narrow second-place finish behind stage winner Cadel Evans in the Tour de France on Tuesday.

The way the Spaniard led the final charge up a small but sharp climb late in the fourth stage gave him a timely confidence boost, especially when the mountains get really big.

The three-time Tour champion was fractionally beaten at the line by the Australian, a two-time Tour runner-up who is showing strong form early in the event.

"It was very close,'' Evans said. "I didn't know if I had it on the line myself.''

Evans, a former world champion, won the (107-mile trek from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne when he threw his bike over the line just before Contador, who thought he had won when he raised his hand in triumph.

But Contador did score a victory of sorts by shaving a few valuable seconds off another rival, Andy Schleck.

"I am happy. I wanted to see how my rivals were, to see if I could take some time off them,'' Contador said. "It's too early to be decisive.''

Contador beat Schleck by just 39 seconds to win last year's Tour, and was 1 minute, 38 seconds behind him before Tuesday's stage. Now that gap is down to 1:30, perhaps not a great amount of time, but important for Contador.

"Losing seconds is not good, but it's not catastrophic,'' Schleck said. "I'm still optimistic, I want to win the Tour de France.''

Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd held onto the yellow jersey for another day, although he is not a Tour challenger and leads Evans by just a second overall. Still, Hushovd surprised even himself by holding on in the climb up to Mur-de-Bretagne.

"It was painful and I cracked up a bit in the climb - I was over my limit,'' Hushovd said. "But then I thought about the yellow jersey and I gave it all I got. I'm proud of what I did.''

Hushovd's Garmin-Cervelo manager, Jonathan Vaughters, was full of praise for his 33-year-old rider.

"Unbelievable effort ... He's a strong, strong man,'' Vaughters said.

With the next three stages expected to be only moderately difficult, Hushovd believes he can keep the jersey until the race reaches the Massif Central mountains Saturday.

Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan was third Tuesday, with all three riders clocking 4 hours, 11 minutes, 39 seconds.

Contador got off to a nightmarish start to the Tour when he was slowed down by a crash that split the peloton in the opening stage. Then he lost more time to Schleck after Sunday's team time trial.

"Overall I am happy even though it's a bit frustrating because the team has been working hard, we haven't had much luck since the start of the Tour,'' Contador said. "Getting the stage win would have been a great joy.''

The gloomy scenario had started for Contador even before the race did.

Contador tested positive for the banned anabolic agent clenbuterol late in last year's Tour and could yet be stripped of all his titles back to last July if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules against him next month.

Although he was cleared to race by the Spanish cycling federation, many fans have questioned his presence on the race and he has been jeered by some fans so far.

Schleck, who also was second behind Contador in 2009, wasn't fooled into thinking he would get an easy ride this year.

"I never though he wouldn't be (challenging),'' Schleck said. "He had some bad luck on the first days and I knew his team wasn't made for the time trial, so it's not a surprise for me.''

The final ascent up to Mur-de-Bretagne seemed more like a practice run for the climbers. But after a few tough days in the saddle Contador relished the chance to attack up the last mile.

"The stage shows that Alberto is ready for the Tour, which we have known from the start of the race,'' said Bjarne Riis, Contador's Saxo Bank manager. "You can't count on seeing the same riders finish like this on the big mountains, but it was a great and exciting finish today.''

The win was particularly sweet for the 34-year-old Evans, who lost the Tour to Contador in 2007 and to Carlos Sastre, another Spaniard, the following year.

"In this first week anywhere we can get time is always a bonus,'' Evans said. "We've come here motivated and well prepared as a team. I think our homework is starting to pay off.''

Now in his second year with the BMC team, Evans feels far more at ease than he did with previous teams.

"For me I'm in a completely different environment and (have) completely different people around me,'' Evans said. "We work together for the same goals. I think the results speak for themselves.''

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Jerome Pugmire can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire

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AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin and Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.

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