PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France — Alberto Contador is clinging to his Tour de France title hopes.
Despite the defending champion's less-than-dominating form, none of his rivals was able to knock him out of contention while he rode with a sore knee during three grueling stages in the Pyrenees.
Although Andy Schleck padded his advantage over Contador by two seconds during Saturday's 14th stage up to Plateau de Beille, his brother Frank and Australia's Cadel Evans did not — finishing in the same time as the Spaniard behind stage winner Jelle Vanendert of Belgium. Thomas Voeckler retained the overall lead.
Although Contador trails Voeckler by four minutes overall, the Frenchman is not considered a contender — least of all by himself — and with a flat stage and a rest day coming up, Contador's knee will get time to heal before the race heads into the high Alps on Wednesday for the first of three more intense climbing stages.
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"I hope I will be feeling even better in the Alps and that I can recover between now and then to get some time back," said Contador, a three-time Tour winner. "I hope to be even better over the next few days."
Seventh overall, Contador trails second-placed Andy Schleck by 1:45, Evans by 1:54 and Frank Schleck by 2:11.
Contador lost most of that time during the first stage, when he was stuck behind a crash and his rivals were in front of the pileup. Contador then fell twice, during the fifth and ninth stages, banging his right knee twice — once on each side.
"My rivals had a faultless start to the Tour de France, whereas I had loads of problems," Contador said. "For many reasons I can't ride how I want to."
But the Schlecks and Evans do not seem strong enough to distance themselves, as Saturday's stage again showed.
Vanendert clinched the first Tour stage win of his career, crossing in 5 hours, 13 minutes, 25 seconds to finish 21 seconds ahead of Sanchez and 46 seconds in front of Andy Schleck, who sprinted away from the other overall contenders in the last 400 yards.
The 105-mile ride from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille finished with a famed and tortuous ascent lasting nearly 10 miles. As the favorites trudged up it, Andy Schleck kept glancing at Contador to see if he was struggling, and launched five unsuccessful attacks to try and drop him.
Contador, considered one of the world's best climbers, prefers to crush his rivals with one prolonged attack.
"I don't like this way of racing, it's different to mine," Contador said. "But that's the way things are. With these tactics, it will be very difficult for them to win (the Tour)."
Frank Schleck defended their tactics, criticizing Contador and Evans for sitting back while others take the initiative.
"I thought that if there were going to be attacks it was going to be me and Andy attacking," he said. "But the others are just hugging wheels and looking at each other."
Frank Schleck also downplayed Contador's chances of a fourth Tour title.
"It doesn't seem like he has the upper hand like he did in other years. He's beatable," he said. "It's a pity that we couldn't take time out of anybody, but that's how it is, there are still a lot of days to come."
Few cycling experts are giving the 32-year-old Voeckler much of a shot at winning cycling's showcase race.
Voeckler himself had said before Saturday's stage that he has no chance and that people should not think otherwise. He soon may have to change his tune.
"There was so much wind before the last climb that I said to myself, 'Stay on the wheels of the favorites and try to follow them,' " he said. "Finally I saw that they weren't so much better than me. I kept on trying and each time they attacked I tried to go. As they were all together the pace was a little slower and I was able to finish with them."
The 15th stage today to Montpellier is a flat route for sprinters. A rest day follows on Monday before the riders head to the Alps.