PAUILLAC, France — Alberto Contador is ready for the champagne to flow. After three weeks of crashes, biting cold, fog and searing heat, he is set to become the Tour de France champion again.
The Spaniard all but captured his third title in four years Saturday by holding off a challenge from his main rival, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, in a 32-mile individual time trial in the next-to-last stage. Today's ride into Paris is a mostly ceremonial affair.
"I am very moved. … It was a difficult Tour, and I'm very happy," Contador said.
He took a deep breath and his hand trembled as he fired an index finger — the trademark gesture by the rider nicknamed "El Pistolero" — to fans after donning the yellow jersey one more time.
"I think it's the first Tour that has given me so much emotion, you can't imagine," he said.
Contador wasn't in top form, but the defending champion extended his lead over Schleck from eight seconds to 39 in a stage won by Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.
Now Contador gets to wear yellow on the Champs-Elysees. And as the leader of his sport at 27 years old, he remains on track for a possible challenge to Lance Armstrong's record of seven Tour wins.
Barring a wild turn of events, Contador awaits a coronation in the 20th stage — a nearly 64-mile ride to Paris. Any attempted attacks by riders would likely be quashed by Contador and his Astana team.
Schleck, who is poised to finish second to Contador for the second straight year, had no regrets. "Beating Contador is not easy, but I tried everything," Schleck said. "I am happy, and I'll come back next year to win."
The 39-second margin is exactly the time that Schleck lost to Contador in the controversial 15th stage Monday. Schleck's chain became entangled during a climb, and Contador sped on.
Some called it a breach of cycling's often-unclear etiquette, which calls for riders to respect the yellow jersey — Schleck was wearing it then — in times of uncontrollable mishaps.
That day, Contador took the jersey and has worn it since.
Armstrong, meanwhile, is set to go out with a whimper in his last Tour. The 38-year-old Texan once dominated time trials. But he finished Saturday's stage in 67th place, 7 minutes, 5 seconds back of Cancellara. Overall, he is 23rd — 39:20 behind Contador. Armstrong returned to a team car and left without speaking to reporters after the stage.