Climb confirms riders' Tour destinies

MONT VENTOUX, France -- The climb many thought might blow up the Tour de France standings wound up confirming them instead. It didn't tell us much we didn't already know about this year's race.

Yet there was value in watching the cast of overall contenders visit the place on Earth that most resembles the moon. As the top riders bore into stiff headwinds on the 13-mile ascent of Mont Ventoux, some testing each other, some protecting their turf, you could almost see the planets aligning for next season and even beyond.

For the second time in three years, Spain's Alberto Contador will raise the cobalt blue ceramic bowl awarded to the Tour winner, assuming he stays upright on his bike in Sunday's largely ceremonial stage that ends in Paris.

With a secure lead in hand and an uncatchable breakaway group up the road vying for the stage win, Contador didn't have to do anything flashy on Ventoux, where half a million spectators crammed onto the road hoping for fireworks. At 26, he's now an experienced champion who has won four Grand Tours and obviously has the ability to add a few more. He was already the finest climber in the world and is now among the best time trialers, beating specialists Fabian Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins at their own game in this race.

Runner-up Andy Schleck, the 24-year-old from Luxembourg, sealed his credentials as Contador's most potent opponent and set up what promises to be a dynamic rivalry for years to come. Schleck will ride into Paris with only one real disappointment. He repeatedly attacked the group that included Contador, knowing that the yellow jersey-bearer would likely stay with him; Schleck's real agenda was to shed the three men who stood in the way of his brother Frank's bid to claw back into third place.

But one of those men had his best climbing day of the Tour while Frank Schleck had an average one. Lance Armstrong, 37-going-on-38 years old, will occupy the last step of the podium and said he was "extremely happy and pretty damn pleased" to have staved off Wiggins and Frank Schleck to finish third, 5:24 behind Contador.

"There wasn't anything else I could do," Armstrong said of his efforts, which made him the oldest man to reach the podium since 40-year-old Raymond Poulidor in 1976. "Alberto was far superior to anyone else in the race this year. Perhaps tactically I made a few passive calls in terms of decision-making and that made the difference between second and third."

Most of Armstrong's decisions were assertive, however. After Contador's first display of strength on the Arcalis climb in Andorra, Armstrong observed cycling etiquette and did not mount a direct assault on his younger teammate. But he also kept the heat on by riding in the front, taking valuable seconds when race tactics permitted, and successfully maintaining the aura of a seven-time champion. Without that approach, he would have finished out of the money.

At the victor's traditional Saturday evening news conference, Contador said the win -- his fourth Grand Tour in the past three seasons -- required all of his resources, psychological and physical. Three-week races are hard enough without worrying about having the most famous cyclist in the world wearing the same team colors and eyeing your prize.

Contador wasn't exactly a prisoner of the drama and expectations that surrounded Astana, but he talked like a man who might have been crossing off stages on the calendar.

"I knew before coming that I had to be prepared both mentally and physically," Contador said through a translator. "Every day was one day less. Every day there was a certain amount of tension and now I can think about the victory and forget about all the other stuff."

He certainly didn't ride as if he were weighed down with anxiety. "Quite the opposite, it gave me even more motivation to train that much harder so that I could end up in this press conference today," Contador said.

Contador may have proved he has the best legs in the world, but his future is the murkiest of the three top men. Armstrong is starting a new team in 2010, to be sponsored by RadioShack; the Schlecks are a tag-team under contract to Denmark-based Saxo Bank next year (although Armstrong said he'd love to talk to them when that deal is up). The winner is the only one who doesn't know where he'll be riding next season, a situation he described as a hassle.

"For sure, it will be on a different team than Lance," Contador added, to no one's surprise. "We'll see what we can do, whether it's a new team or find a team that is 100 percent behind me to confront this race to win it again."

The new champion's stubbornness helped him steer through the politics and physical challenges that might have impeded him, but it also led to odd decisions at times, such as an acceleration that dropped teammate Andreas Klöden and left Contador isolated with the Schlecks on the toughest day in the Alps. Whether it was inadvertent (as Contador said) or deliberate nose-thumbing, it cost Astana a possible sweep of the podium and was openly questioned by Astana manager Johan Bruyneel and Armstrong.

Bruyneel, who has now directed nine Tour wins and has twice had two of his riders on the podium, was complimentary about Contador on Saturday.

"He's the best rider in the world -- there's no doubt about that, he's won his last four big Tours," Bruyneel said. "When there are two champions who want to win, of course there's going to be tension, but we were able to manage it within the team."

When Contador won the doping-scandal-ridden 2007 Tour, he was grilled about an alleged connection to the Operacion Puerto blood doping case (a link that was never established) and his past ties to disgraced Spanish sports director Manolo Saiz. This Tour has had nary a positive test result yet, but Contador is still facing questions, as any champion who displays an extra gear got in the past and is sure to get for the indefinite future.

He refused to answer those queries after winning Thursday's time trial and Saturday again declined to cite his VO2 max, a measure of the oxygen-processing capacity of an athlete's lungs. (Cycling mathematicians have been trying to parse Contador's physiological stats on his impressively rapid climb to the uphill finish in Verbier, Switzerland.)

Contador gave a bit of a stump speech on the subject Saturday.

"I'm always in favor of the anti-doping controls -- good for the sport, for cycling, which I love so much," said Contador, who is reportedly in discussions with several teams about his 2010 plans, including U.S.-based Garmin-Slipstream, which has been scrupulous about screening potential riders for evidence of blood manipulation. "I always pass the controls with a happy face and I will keep undergoing them.

"The mentality of the riders has completely changed. Now we're seeing the fruit of these anti-doping efforts. We're seeing it now in this Tour de France and I also believe that this is a great victory."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Follow her Twitter feed here or reach her at bonniedford@aol.com.