Reuters - Tue, 06 Jul 19:53:00 2010
Alberto Contador almost crashed, suffered technical problems with a malfunctioning wheel but still safely negotiated the trickiest of Tour de France stages.
The Spaniard, defending champion and twice a Tour winner, limited the damage on the seven cobbled sectors of the third stage, losing only 1:13 to world champion Cadel Evans and Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, both leading contenders.
He is now ninth overall, only 31 seconds behind sixth-placed and last year's runner-up Schleck and 1:01 adrift of Evans, who lies third in the standings.
With gruelling mountain stages in the Pyrenees and a 52-km final time trial still to come, Contador is well placed to launch his assault on a third title.
"He has this capacity to control the race and tremendous motivation to be well placed in the peloton," his Astana manager Yvon Sanquer said.
With some 40 kms left of the third stage from Wanze, Belgium, Contador almost missed a turn. But with impressive composure, he jumped on the pavement and quickly bounced back on the road to avoid a crash.
Contador also experienced problems with his rear wheel.
"I am happy because in the last 30 kms, my rear wheel was too tight and I could not stand on the bike," he said.
"But I would have lost more time if I had decided to change my bike."
More good news for the 27-year-old came when he gained 55 seconds over his former Astana team mate and fierce rival Lance Armstrong, who suffered a puncture.
"I just had a good day and did not crash. It's not the time to make an analysis, it's not important to know if Lance is in front or behind," he said.
Contador benefited from the help of Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov, who led the way on the cobblestones.
"We are satisfied. We can only be satisfied despite this broken wheel by the end of the stage. We lost a bit of time but we also gained time on other rivals," said Sanquer.
Having passed the cobblestones test, Contador is now more relaxed.
"He is relaxed but also very focused," said Sanquer. "We are trying to put him in the best psychological condition so that everything goes well. Alexandre did a wonderful job today and it gives the squad peacefulness and motivation.
"We now have a lot of conviction and motivation to do great things."