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Contador lives up to yellow with impressive individual time trial victory

By Heidi Swift - July 23rd, 2009

Contador didn’t need to win today to protect his race lead, but win he did. The Spaniard rode away with the 40 kilometer individual time-trial, beating time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellara (a two-time former TT World Champion and Olympic gold medalist) by three seconds. Contador covered the course in 48 minutes and 30 seconds, averaging over 30 miles per hour.

Winning the individual time-trial is a point of pride for the maillot jaune - Armstrong did it in 6 of his 7 historic Tour de France wins. The victory puts a stamp of authority on Contador’s overall race lead - if there were any doubt up to this point, the performance confirms his worthiness of the Tour’s highest honor.

More changes in the GC

The individual time trial event almost always causes significant shakeup in the overall classification and today was no exception.

While Contador and A. Schleck remained in the 1st and 2nd place slots, Lance Armstrong’s performance (16th place, 1:30 off the lead pace) was good enough to bump him up a spot from 4th into 3rd overall. The Texan will be keen to keep a foot on the podium all the way to Paris and will likely set his sights on moving into second with a big ride up Mont Vontoux on Saturday.

Contador’s four minute lead over the rest of the field will be hard (if not impossible) to overcome in the remaining days. He’ll have to make a pretty serious mistake to open the door for his rivals to have a chance at stealing the maillot jaune. That said, there’s a very real battle shaping up for the remaining podium positions.

Armstrong, Wiggins and Kloden are all within striking distance (1-2 minutes back) of Andy Schleck, who is currently in second place.  Wiggins seems like a bit of a long shot (he’d have to have the ride of his life up Mont Vontoux to take 2 minutes back), but both Armstrong and Kloden have demonstrated that they’ve got decent legs in the mountains and could pose a serious threat to the young Saxo-Bank rider should they find themselves riding exceptionally well on Saturday.

A look into the future: Columbia-HTC Martin and Monfort motor to top-15 finishes

Columbia-HTC’s Tony Martin delivered an impressive ride today, finishing just out of the top ten in 11th position and beating the likes of Lance Armstrong and Cadel Evans. Maxime Monfort also rode well, finishing 13th on the stage.

The performances confirm that the two young riders represent a strong future for Columbia-HTC. Sport Director Ralf Aldag has said that he is committed to developing a homegrown GC rider for the team which means that instead of “buying” a big-name GC rider like Cadel Evans (who doesn’t currently have a contract for next year) the team will instead focus on investing time and resources into these promising young talents.

Another driver behind this strategy is the fact that the team is currently built around sprinter Mark Cavendish and bringing on a heavy-hitting GC rider would disrupt the current team organization.

Looking ahead to Stage Nineteen

The 188km stage from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas winds its way south through the Rhone Valley and with everyone focused on Mont Vontoux the following day, it’s hard to say what will happen. Riders are tired and the sprinter’s teams may be too wiped out to chase back an ambitious breakaway.

Since this is the last stage for the unknown to show their faces (and their sponsors) to the world, it would be surprising if we don’t see a small group of riders stay away.  Columbia-HTC are focused on the win in Paris on Sunday, so it’s doubtful that they’ll waste their legs today to pull back a move. More likely, they’ll sit in and try to recover as much as possible before heading into the mountains.

That said, there are a few Columbia boys who are still hungry for a stage win of their own – you never know if you’ll see some representation from the white-and-yellow in the break tomorrow.

ROAR: What’s up with the stuffed lion?

You may have noticed that during the podium ceremony at the end of each stage, the winner of the yellow jersey is presented with a little stuffed lion.

The lion is the mascot of Crédit Lyonnais who is the financial manager and main sponsor of the Tour de France. They have been awarding them since 1987.

How to get your own: Fabian Cancellara gave his lion from the opening time-trial to Ben Stiller, who was brought on stage in lieu of a podium girl to present the award. If you want a lion of your own and don’t happen to know a former maillot jaune winner to sweet-talk, respectable replicas are currently selling for anywhere from $10-$100 on eBay.

Stage 18 Results: Top Five Individuals
1.      CONTADOR Alberto          ASTANA              48' 30"       
2.     CANCELLARA Fabian     TEAM SAXO BANK         + 00' 03"
3.     IGNATIEV Mikhail         TEAM KATUSHA          + 00' 15"
4.     LARSSON Gustav         TEAM SAXO BANK          + 00' 33"
5.     MILLAR David         GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM     + 00' 41"

Top Ten Individual Standings (GC) after Stage 18
1.      CONTADOR Alberto      ASTANA                  73h 15' 39"       
2.     SCHLECK Andy     TEAM SAXO BANK              + 04' 11"
3.     ARMSTRONG Lance     ASTANA                  + 05' 25"
4.     WIGGINS Bradley     GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM          + 05' 36"
5.     KLÖDEN Andréas     ASTANA                  + 05' 38"
6.     SCHLECK Frank     TEAM SAXO BANK              + 05' 59"
7.     NIBALI Vincenzo     LIQUIGAS                  + 07' 15"
8.     VANDE VELDE Christian     GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM         + 10' 08"
9.     ASTARLOZA Mikel         EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI         + 12' 38"
10.     LE MEVEL Christophe     FRANCAISE DES JEUX         + 12' 41"

Columbia-HTC Individual Standings after Stage 18
22.    HINCAPIE George                    131.      GRABSCH Bert
27.      MONFORT Maxime                    141.      CAVENDISH Mark
34.      KIRCHEN Kim                        153.      RENSHAW Mark
47.      MARTIN Tony                        154.      EISEL Bernhard
109.      ROGERS Michael



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