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Contador all but clinches victory at Tour de France

| Sunday, July 29, 2007

ANGOULEME, France -- With Lance Armstrong chattering in his ear, Alberto Contador churned out the miles, his lead dwindling along with the chance to wear the winner's yellow jersey at a Tour de France that will be remembered for its scandals.

The 24-year-old Discovery Channel cyclist beat the clock in Saturday's time trial to seal the victory at cycling's biggest event, where the pre-race favorite was accused of cheating, and the longtime leader was sent home for lying.

Contador entered the 19th stage with a 1-minute, 50-second lead over Cadel Evans. When it was over, teammate American Levi Leipheimer had won the stage, and Contador was clinging to a 23-second advantage over Evans, paving the way for a ceremonial ride along the Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris on Sunday and the first Tour win for Discovery since Armstrong retired.

But perhaps even that celebration will be tainted, as Contador has not been spared the doping suspicions that seem attached to the yellow jersey.

He missed the Tour last year when his former team, Astana, was disqualified because he and four other riders were implicated in the Spanish blood-doping investigation known as Operation Puerto.

French daily Le Monde, citing what it said was an investigation file to which it had access, said that Contador's name, or initials, appeared in documents found at the apartment of the Spanish doctor at the center of the Spanish probe.

Contador said he was "sure" he was not involved in the case.

He said he would -- if asked -- give a DNA sample but added he wouldn't offer it up himself.

"I'm innocent," he said. "I don't have to prove anything to anyone."

Contador said his name mistakenly turned up in the Puerto file.

"I was on the wrong team at the wrong time," he said.

His road toward victory has combined grit, explosive acceleration on tough mountain climbs and luck at the expense of former leader Michael Rasmussen.

Contador inherited the leader's yellow jersey when the Danish cyclist was ousted Wednesday by his Rabobank team for lying about his whereabouts in June when he missed a doping check.

A day earlier, pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team were forced out of the Tour when it was revealed he had tested positive for a banned blood transfusion. Although Vinokourov has denied doping, a senior official said Saturday the backup "B" sample confirmed the positive test.

They were just the biggest names to fall.

Italy's Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone, then he and his Cofidis team were taken out of the race. That came a week after word that Patrik Sinkewitz of the T-Mobile squad tested positive for testosterone in a training run last month.

"I think cycling is crazy now; we see that there are a lot of problems," Contador said. "It's clear that we can't continue with all the scandals and all the problems we had."

Contador's story has a back-from-the-brink appeal. In 2004, he suffered a massive blood clot in his brain that needed surgery. While in a hospital bed, he drew inspiration from reading a book about Armstrong, he said.

Saturday, that inspiration was right there with him, riding in the team car.

"It was more nerve-racking than I expected," said seven-time Tour winner Armstrong. "It made me nervous."

He said the team has performed better than he and team sporting director Johan Bruyneel expected.

"Johan wanted to win the white jersey, put someone on the podium and win two stages," Armstrong said. "We've done all those things, plus the yellow one so far."

Leipheimer was a big part of that. He won his first Tour stage Saturday with a time of 1 hour, 2 minutes, 44 seconds in the 35-mile ride from Cognac to Angouleme. Australian Evans was second, 51 seconds behind, and Contador was fifth, 2:18 behind.

Leipheimer, who started out 2:49 behind Contador in third place overall, now trails him by 31 seconds.

Contador's teammates -- including Leipheimer -- are likely to go all ou today to protect his lead along the 90.7-mile ride from Marcoussis to the Champs-ElysDees.

"We've won this Tour de France -- barring a freak accident," Leipheimer said of his team. "I am obviously very happy for Alberto."

The Spaniard is riding in his second Tour, after winning this year's Paris-Nice race, and is set to be the youngest winner since Jan Ullrich in 1997.

Evans already has conceded, attributing his defeat to falling back in the Peyresourde climb in the Pyrenees at the beginning of the third week.

If all holds, Contador will win with the second-closest margin of victory. The record belongs to American Greg Lemond, who had an eight-second margin over France's Laurent Fignon in 1989.

Contador knew his career would be made yesterday.

"I'm eager to go home and celebrate," Contador said. "It wasn't an easy day."

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