Angry Tour de France rivals closer than ever

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BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, France (AP) — Andy Schleck is furious and Alberto Contador is on the defensive, but the Tour de France is far from decided with the riders facing the most difficult day of the race Tuesday.

Schleck lost the overall leader’s yellow jersey to defending champion Contador on Monday after he suffered a mechanical problem. He accused the Spaniard of taking advantage of that instead of waiting according to race etiquette. Contador, who now leads by 8 seconds, insisted he hadn’t seen that the Luxembourg rider had a problem.

Whatever the truth, both know that incident probably won’t make the difference between victory and defeat for either rider. Tuesday’s 16th stage, on the other hand, gives them the chance to do something that could actually be decisive.

The 124-mile stage from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau is the hardest the riders have yet faced. It includes such daunting climbs as the Category 1 Col de Peyresourde and Col d’Aspin, as well as two mountains that are so difficult they aren’t even given a category.

The Col d’Aubisque isn’t too steep but it’s extremely long — 18.1 miles of climbing — while the Col du Tourmalet averages a gradient of 7.3 percent over its 10.6 miles, with some parts topping 10 percent.

Schleck has promised to take his revenge, and he has just two more chances in the mountains to get away from Contador and pick up some real time. He knows he will need a big lead if he is to hold on in the time-trial in Saturday’s penultimate stage — Contador has proven much stronger in time trials than Schleck.

“I’ve got fire in my belly,” Schleck said. “The race is not finished, and I will take my revenge in the next days.”

After collecting the yellow jersey, Contador stressed that nothing was decided yet.

“To lose 30 seconds or to gain 30 seconds at this point won’t change the race,” he said.

“I understand that he is disappointed for what happened today, but … for me it doesn’t change anything. The goal is still Paris.”

After Tuesday there will be one final stage in the Pyrenees on Thursday, climbing the Col du Tourmalet in the other direction and finishing at the top. The Tour ends in the French capital on Sunday.

The controversy over Schleck and Contador overshadowed Monday’s stage victory, which was taken by French national champion Thomas Voeckler, who crossed the line in his tricolor jersey celebrating with the spectators.

This has been an unusually successful Tour for the home crowd, who haven’t seen a French overall winner since Bernard Hinault took the last of his five victories in 1985. Voeckler’s victory is the fifth French stage win. However, the best Frenchman in the overall standings is 19th-placed John Gadret.