Contador set to win Tour — and Astana battle

MONT VENTOUX: Alberto Contador is basking in double satisfaction: the Tour de France victory is an easy ride away, and he's pulled it off in spite of his own team — and Lance Armstrong.

The 26-year-old Spaniard all but secured a second victory in cycling's main event on Saturday, by fending off challengers in the race climax on one of France's toughest climbs: Mont Ventoux.

Armstrong, the seven-time champion, will be on podium for an eighth time, but he's third — not on the step he had aimed for.

When he sees Contador in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees, Armstrong — after not-so-subtle verbal jabs against the Spaniard during the three-week race — could very well be green.

In the heat of the race, Contador had sought to play down the differences in their Kazakh Astana team, dodging or downplaying questions about "tension" that Armstrong evoked.

With victory nearly certain, the Spaniard opened up a bit.

"My conscience is very clear because in the end I have run two races, one on the bike and one at the team hotel," he said on Spanish broadcaster TVE after Saturday's ride.

Contador knew his task at the Tour would be tricky when the Texan announced last year he was coming back from retirement to join his old mentor, Johan Bruyneel, at the Astana team. The Belgian strategist had been training Contador as his new cycling star.

Once the Tour was on, and Armstrong's barbs flew, Contador counted the days and tried to focus on his racing — not on the Texan and tensions at the team dinner table.

"Every day, I told myself: 'One day less'," he said at a news conference after Saturday's stage. "Now, it's all settled. Everything is better and the situation is back to normal."

Armstrong and Bruyneel are very close. Contador was asked whether he thought that the team manager would have rather seen the Texan win.

"That's a good question," the Spaniard said.

"The preparations for the Tour were complicated. There were a lot of elements stacked against me, but instead of being worried, I took it all as an added motivator," he said. "I think I succeeded."

While much has been made of Armstrong's comeback, Contador had one too: He was unable to defend his 2007 title because Astana was not invited last year over a doping scandal before he joined.

With Armstrong set to lead a new Radio Shack team next year, and Bruyneel still coy about his own future, Contador's plans are still uncertain. But he knows he won't team with Armstrong again.

"He wanted to win. I wanted to win. That doesn't make for a necessarily compatible situation," Contador said. "He will be surely a formidable adversary next year."

With doping scandals tarnishing the Tour in recent years, suspicions linger about whether riders are clean. Contador refused to answer whether he had ever used prohibited substances.

But he welcomes stepped-up anti-doping controls.

"I am subjected to (anti-doping) controls 365 days a year," he said. "And I do it with goodwill, because I think it's good for cycling, for the sport I love."

Sunday's final stage will be a largely ceremonial ride to Paris, and breakaway attempts among the leaders are taboo. The upshot is that an accident can prevent Contador from winning.

Armstrong held off a number of attacks from his closest challengers to virtually assure himself of finishing on the podium in his first Tour since 2005.

With brush fires blazing near the course route, fire trucks roared in the opposite direction of the pack on the Abeille pass, a mid-level climb late in the stage. Five spray planes doused the flames from overhead. Race officials say the riders weren't in danger.

Huge crowds lined the climb up to the bald peak of Mont Ventoux, one of the most celebrated — and dreaded — cycling climbs in France.

"Hell, it seems like half of America showed up and all of France. It was so packed and when you have a lot of people it blocks a lot of the wind," Armstrong said.

Juan Manuel Garate of Spain won Saturday's 103.8-mile Stage 20 from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux, featuring a 13.1-mile ride up the very steep final ascent.

Garate, who entered the stage more than 1 1/2 hours behind Contador in the overall standings, clocked 4 hours, 39 minutes, 21 seconds, holding off fellow breakaway rider Tony Martin of Germany by 3 seconds.

Andy Schleck, who retained second overall, crossed third, 38 seconds back — in the same time as Contador. Armstrong was fifth, 41 seconds behind Garate, and Frank Schleck was sixth, 43 seconds back.

Armstrong succeeded in holding off the two challengers nipping at his heels for third: Bradley Wiggins of Britain began the stage 15 seconds behind the Texan, and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg trailed him by 38.

"It was kind of simple, following Wiggins and following Frank Schleck," Armstrong said. "And I had the legs for that."

Contador had a comfortable margin over Andy Schleck. The 24-year-old rider from Luxembourg led at least a half-dozen attacks on the way up to the peak of the moonscape-like mountain.

Overall, Contador leads Andy Schleck by 4:11, and Armstrong is 5:24 behind. Bradley Wiggins is fourth, 6:01 back, and Frank Schleck is fifth — 6:04 behind the Spaniard.

Armstrong said that even when he was dominant, from 1999 to 2005, he might've had trouble beating Contador. And the Spaniard is reveling that Armstrong will be looking up to him on the podium.

"It's a pity to part now," Contador said. "But maybe we will meet again sometime in the future."