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PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (AFP) —Alberto Contador warned yellow jersey rivals Andy and Fränk Schleck that his campaign is alive and kicking after surviving the tough 14th stage of the Tour de France on Saturday.
Contador, the three-time and defending champion, is aiming to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to complete the Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double.
But so far, the 98th edition of the world’s biggest race — won by Contador in 2007, 2009 and 2010 — has not been kind to the Saxo Bank-Sungard captain.
He crashed four times in the first nine days and has been racing with a sore right knee, which meant he started the first of three days in the Pyrenees more than 90 seconds behind Leopard-Trek’s Schlecks and BMC’s Cadel Evans.
At Luz Ardiden on stage 12 he lost 13 seconds to Andy Schleck and Evans — who share the past four runner-up places — and 33 seconds to Fränk Schleck.
Expected to lose more time to the Schlecks on Saturday’s climb-packed 168.5km stage from Saint Gaudens to Plateau de Beille, Contador came through relatively unscathed.
He was unable to launch any of his trademark attacks, but did counter each acceleration the Schlecks made when they began trying to drop him near the foot of the 15.8km climb.
In the end, he only lost two seconds to Andy as the Luxemburger raced away at the finish to cross more than 46 seconds behind stage winner Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto).
Contador now has Sunday’s mainly flat stage and Monday’s rest day in which to try to recover before he begins his campaign to close his deficit over three consecutive days in the Alps starting Tuesday.
“I didn’t feel too good today but at the same time I wasn’t put into too much difficulty and that’s motivating for the stages ahead,” said Contador, who won the stage here the last time it featured in 2007.
In what appeared to be a barb aimed at the Schlecks’ inability to drop him with a long, decisive attack, he added: “We can’t really say it went good for me today. Good means winning.
“I don’t like that kind of racing, which is very different to mine. For one reason or another I’m unable to race the way I want to, but I feel I’m getting better every day.
“It’s been a difficult Tour for me. I hope things keep on improving and that I get myself into condition so that I can attack in the Alps.”
Asked on France 2 television if he could win the race again, Contador replied: “Yes.”