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Alberto Contador hopes his knee holds up in Pyrenees as Tour de France hits big mountains
LAVAUR, France (AP) ' Defending Tour de France Alberto Contador wants to show his rivals he is still the world's best climber when the race hits the Pyrenees on Thursday. It just depends whether his troublesome right knee lets him.
The three-time champion has been bugged by a swelling in his right knee since he crashed on last week's fifth stage, and he banged the same knee again when falling of his bike on stage 9 last Sunday.
With two mammoth climbs up the Col du Tourmalet and an uphill finish to Luz-Ardiden awaiting him on Thursday's 12th stage, the Spaniard feels quietly confident his body will not let him down. It had better not, otherwise Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans, his main Tour rivals, will not hesitate to try to knock him out of contention.
Cruel, but that's the Tour. After all, Contador did not wait around when Schleck's chain came off last year.
"My knee is responding well so I'm obviously very happy," Contador said Wednesday's 11th stage. "But keep in mind that I didn't climb the Tourmalet today. I have to see how it responds and on that basis I will make a decision how to do the race on the last climb tomorrow."
British sprinter Mark Cavendish won Wednesday's 11th stage with a blistering late attack to clinch his third Tour stage win of the race, and Frenchman Thomas Voeckler kept hold of the race leader's yellow jersey for another day.
Evans is the best placed of the main Tour contenders and the Australian veteran currently leads Schleck by 11 seconds overall, and Contador by 1 minute, 41 seconds. Schleck, who lost last year's Tour to Contador by just 39 seconds, now leads him by 1:30.
But after Thursday's stage, those times could well be very different.
Contador's priority on Wednesday was more about staying on his saddle and letting the rain massage his sore knee on a 104.1-mile, flat and rainy route from Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur.
"The knee did not bother me at any time today," a relieved Contador said. "The rain was actually soothing my knee today as it almost felt like ice."
Contador, however, knows there is nothing soothing about the Pyrenees.
Stage 12 is a 131.1-mile trek from Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden and has three significant climbs which sprinters dread and climbers like Contador love.
First up is a category 1 climb up La Hourquette d'Ancizan, followed by the biggest ascent of the day ' 17.1 kilometers up Tourmalet at an average gradient of 7.3 percent. Exhausted riders then have an uphill finish to Luz-Ardiden.
Both Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden are known as Hors Categorie climbs, or HC ' so tough they do not have a classification.
With Evans and Contador fairly evenly matched in time trials, the onus is on Schleck to attack as he needs to gain more time on Contador and Evans to give himself a cushion when the crucial time trial comes later.
"At Luz-Ardiden, I think that everyone will be waiting," Contador said. "Someone has to open the race, especially the Schleck brothers."
Evans, the Tour runner-up in 2007 and '08, also expects attacks, although he would not say whether they would come from him.
"The first mountain stage always gives a pretty good indicator of who's a real contender for Paris," said Evans, who rides for the BMC team. "Someone has a bad day, someone has an extraordinarily good day. But it always gives some degree of an indicator."
Cavendish, meanwhile, nearly lost a shoe in the final stretch of Wednesday's stage, but kept his cool to beat Andre Greipel of Germany at the line to take the leading sprinter's green jersey.
The prolific Cavendish claimed the 18th Tour stage win of his career, crossing the line in 3 hours, 46 minutes, 7 seconds.
"It's incredible to have the green jersey. It's the most beautiful jersey in the world," Cavendish said.
Despite his impressive tally of stage wins, the coveted sprint champion's jersey has so far eluded Cavendish.
He was second last year behind Alessandro Petacchi of Italy, and second to two-time sprint champion Thor Hushovd in 2009. Cavendish pulled out before the Alpine stages in 2008 to save energy for the Olympics.
Voeckler, meanwhile, said he expects to lose his yellow jersey in the Pyrenees. But it remains to be seen if Contador tries to take it off him, or waits for his chance with two more massive Pyrenean stages to follow.
Friday's 13th stage features an HC trek up Col d'Aubisque, followed by a hair-raising 24.8-mile descent to the line.
Saturday's is harder than the previous two ' an intense day featuring two nasty category 1 ascents up Col de la Core and Col d'Agnes, and finishing with a long HC climb up to Plateau de Beille.
AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin contributed to this story.
Jerome Pugmire can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire