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Schleck sees hopes of victory on Col du Tourmalet
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg signs autographs as he leaves for a training ride on the second rest day of the Tour de France cycling race in Pau, Pyrenees region, France, Wednesday, July 21, 2010. - photo by Associated Press

PAU, France — Andy Schleck knows he has one opportunity to win the Tour de France — on the climb up the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees on Thursday.

He believes the fierce ascent at the end of the 17th stage is the only place he can wrest the yellow jersey from two-time champion Alberto Contador and put at least a minute between him and his Spanish rival going into the final weekend of the three-week race.

"I will have to be in yellow. There's only one chance to take it and that's tomorrow," Schleck said Wednesday. "With a minute, I would be happy. But if it's more, that's better."

The Luxembourg rider is eight seconds behind the defending champion in the overall standings after Contador took the lead Monday.

If the Spaniard has the overall lead by the end of Thursday's stage, most observers agree he will be ahead when the race finishes Sunday in Paris. The leading riders are unlikely to be able to make up time on each other in Friday's flat stage, and Saturday's stage is a time trial, a discipline in which Contador excels.

"There is only one way, and that is the climb of the Tourmalet," Schleck said.

It's an outcome that likely has race organizers smiling,

In celebration of the centenary of the Tour's first sortie into the Pyrenees, they arranged this year for the stage including the Col du Tourmalet to finish at the very top of the legendary climb. In the past, for logistical reasons, the riders have topped the Tourmalet and then raced two miles downhill to the finish.

Contador knows the attack will come and isn't making assumptions about winning his third Tour just yet.

He said Thursday's stage would be "very, very hard."

"I think we can have very big gaps in that stage, probably more than in the time trial," he said.

The 17th stage is a 108.1-mile ride from Pau to the Tourmalet. The riders have already tackled the peak once, but this time they will do it in the opposite direction — and finish on top.

Before they even get to the Tourmalet, the riders will tackle two very difficult climbs — the Col du Soulor and the Col de Marie-Blanque, the final two miles of which are at a gradient of more than 11 percent.

The Tourmalet doesn't reach that pitch, but it's twice as long at 11.6 miles.

"It is definitely the highlight of this year's Tour," Schleck said. "I always said the guy who has the yellow tomorrow will have the yellow in Paris, and I still believe that."

Contador and Schleck are not the only riders with a chance of overall glory. Spain's Samuel Sanchez is two minutes behind compatriot Contador, and Denis Menchov of Russia is 13 seconds further back. That sort of gap could be bridged in such a big mountain stage.

As well as those looking for overall victory, there are a number of other riders seeking a victory on the Tourmalet. They include seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who just missed out on a stage win in Tuesday's hard mountain stage.

"It's not yet finished," said Johan Bruyneel, manager of Armstrong's RadioShack team. "There's a single (mountain) stage left on Thursday. ... We're going to try again."

And though Armstrong's career cycling career is coming to an end, his competitive spirit still burns.

A video posted on the Internet after his bid to win Tuesday's 16th stage showed the American bumping into a fan and shouting at a photographer as he struggled to get back to the team bus.

Other honors are also still up for grabs.

Frenchman Anthony Charteau is hoping to wrap up the title of King of the Mountains, given to the best climber of the Tour, but will face strong competition from his nearest rival for the polka-dot jersey, French rider Christophe Moreau.

Moreau, in his final Tour at the age of 39, also sprinted for victory at the end of Tuesday's stage but both he and the 38-year-old Armstrong were beaten by the younger legs of Pierrick Fedrigo of France.