Alberto Contador kept an eight-second lead in the Tour de France after matching closest rival Andy Schleck up the final mountain ascent of the race.
Schleck won the stage by about a wheel’s length after the 11.6-mile climb to the Col du Tourmalet at the end of stage 17, although he couldn’t cut the overall lead.
There are two more flat stages and a time trial before the July 25 finish in Paris. Defending champion Contador is a time-trial specialist who beat Schleck by 1 minute, 45 seconds in the discipline over 25 miles last year.
“I made a big step today that makes me more relaxed ahead of the time trial,” Contador, seeking a third Tour title in four years, told reporters. “But every day is a new story at the Tour and there’s a long way to Paris.”
On the final climb, which was clouded in mist and lined with thousands of fans, Schleck attacked with six miles left and Contador immediately followed his wheel.
Schleck turned to speak Contador as he rode. The Spaniard appeared not to reply.
“I asked him to take his turn” at the front, Schleck said. “I wanted to be behind him so that I could attack but he’s very smart and he stayed on my wheel.”
With just over two miles left, Contador moved ahead and built a lead of several meters, only for Schleck to pull back alongside him within seconds. Contador went back to tracking him for the rest of the climb.
After they crossed the finish line, the pair embraced.
Spain’s Samuel Sanchez, who’s third overall, finished 1 minute, 32 seconds behind the leaders after crashing on a rain-soaked road early in the stage. Fourth-placed Denis Menchov was eight seconds further back today.
Last year’s runner-up, Schleck is seeking to become the first Luxembourg winner of cycling’s premier race since Charly Gaul in 1958.
“I know it’s going to be hard now to win this Tour,” Schleck said. “I tried everything I could but I couldn’t drop him.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy followed the stage in a race official’s car. At the summit, he shook hands and chatted with Contador, Schleck and seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who’s competing at his last Tour.
Armstrong finished in 17th place today, more than four minutes behind the leaders. He is 23rd of 171 riders in the overall standings.