Alberto Contador admitted to being pushed to his absolute limits on his way to virtually securing a third Tour de France yellow jersey triumph on Sunday.
“This year there were times when I wasn’t exactly on top form, today included. The race this year was particularly hard,” said Contador, who came close to losing his yellow jersey to Andy Schleck in Saturday’s final time trial. Go to Cycling Central Spain’s two-time champion went into the penultimate stage time trial with only an eight-second lead on key rival Andy Schleck. And there was drama right to the wire as Schleck threatened to close his deficit early on before he ran out of juice and Contador came into his own in the latter half of the flat 52km-long course. In 2009 Contador beat Swiss Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara by three seconds in the final time trial to claim the stage, and rubber-stamp his second yellow jersey triumph. And despite finishing only 35th, at 5min 43sec behind a victorious Cancellara on Saturday, it was enough to keep Schleck 31 seconds adrift and heading for a second successive runner-up place. Contador will now go into Sunday’s final stage to Paris, which is not usually contended by the yellow jersey rivals, with a 39 second lead on the Luxemburger. Ironically, it is the exact figure Schleck lost to Contador on stage 15 when the Spaniard counter-attacked him moments before he suffered an untimely mechanical problem with his gears. Contador admitted he feared for his yellow jersey throughout the 19th stage race against the clock. “To be honest, I got some information that said I was five seconds behind Andy, and I started to panic,” added the Spaniard. “I started to think, ‘Oh my God, this is it, it’s over’. And I stayed that way until the finish line really.” With Schleck pushing him so close, Contador knows he is in for a battle in the future. But the Spaniard attempted to put that in perspective by claiming he was not as good as he should have been. “I know Andy well, and he’s a great rider. He’s going to be a major rival for a long time,” said Contador. “But I think this year I wasn’t exactly at my best. “Our team perhaps wasn’t the strongest but we really supported each other. If you think about the efforts I had to make and the riders I had to follow on the climbs … this was the real key to my victory.” For his part, Schleck has vowed to come back and challenge even harder in 2011. “I’ve won two stages here, so for that I’m happy,” Schleck said. “I will come back next year to win. He (Contador) is not unbeatable.”