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Contador closes in on Tour victory

FRANK Schleck of Luxembourg won yesterday's 17th stage of the Tour de France race and Alberto Contador finished second to close in on the overall victory as the race left the Alps.

Lance Armstrong trailed more than 2 minutes back and fell from second to fourth place overall in the 169-kilometer ride from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand - seen by many as the toughest stage this year.

Contador held on to the yellow jersey by staying with Schleck and his younger brother Andy in a three-man breakaway at the end of the stage. Andy Schleck finished third while Armstrong was fifth, 2:18 back.

The Schleck brothers both passed Armstrong in the overall standings, with Andy 2:26 behind Contador in second place and Frank 3:25 behind in third. Armstrong trails Contador by 3:55.

Armstrong is a stronger time-trial rider than the Schlecks, and could make up ground in the 40.5-kilometer race against the clock in Annecy in the stage 18 today.

The stage started without German Jens Voigt, who crashed out on Tuesday and suffered a fractured cheekbone.

A 22-man breakaway shaped up in the opening climb to the Cormet de Roselend, with Norway's Thor Hushovd going solo in the descent to snatch precious points for the green jersey classification.

He now has an almost unassailable lead of 30 points over Briton Mark Cavendish.

Contador had to stop twice in the climb to the Col des Saisies because of a mechanical problem. Teammate Andreas Kloeden waited for him before swiftly pulling him back into the peloton.

Saxo Bank increased the pace midway through the ascent as Australian Cadel Evans, runner-up for the last two years, lost contact with the favorites.

Giro champion Denis Menchov's Tour nightmare continued as the Russian, 42nd overall at the start of the stage, fell off twice in the descent from the Col des Saisies.

Defending champion Carlos Sastre attacked at foot of the gruelling Col de Romme, a 8.8-km ascent at an average gradient of 8.9 per cent, with a part at 12.3 per cent.

The Spaniard, however, failed to keep up with the favorites and was eventually dropped.

Frank and Andy Schleck then attacked repeatedly, with Contador each time on their wheel.

The moves eventually wore down Armstrong and Wiggins, who reached the summit one minute three seconds behind Contador, the Schleck brothers and Kloeden.

The finale on the Col de la Colombiere was a four-man affair between the Schlecks and the two Astana riders, the two brothers leading the way, obviously content with securing podium places and giving up on the idea of dropping Contador.

The Spaniard even attacked 16.7kms from the finish line, but unsuccessfully, as his move finished off Kloeden but not the Schlecks.


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