Contador again showed why he is in pole position in this year's Tour
Spain's Alberto Contador moved a step closer to victory in the Tour de France after a gruelling 17th stage, from Bourg St Maurice to Le Grand Bornand.
The Astana rider survived attacks by the Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy, to cross the line second behind Frank and extend his overall lead.
Andy and Frank are now second and third respectively in the overall standings with Lance Armstrong fourth.
Britain's Bradley Wiggins has dropped to sixth after a seventh-place finish.
Wiggins again demonstrated his improved climbing ability as the race left the Alps but his day became an exercise in damage limitation as he was dropped by Contador and the Schleck brothers on the penultimate climb of the day, the Col de Romme.
Armstrong, too, was also unable to stay with the leading group, which also contained Andreas Kloden, as the Schlecks piled on the pressure.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Contador launched his own attack, losing his Astana team-mate Kloden in the process and leaving himself dangerously exposed.
Astana team boss Johan Bruyneel later admitted the Spaniard's move had been against his wishes.
"I told him not to go, he didn't need to attack, because the Schlecks would go full gas to the finish." he said.
"I said to him 'You don't have to attack to win the Tour de France today'."
But, despite the best efforts of the Schleck brothers, who both ride for the Saxo Bank team, the 2007 champion never looked like losing time to his rivals.
"We had nothing to lose this morning," said Frank Schleck, whose victory was the second Tour stage win of his career, following his win at Alpe d'Huez in 2006.
"We staked everything on launching those attacks. It was a bit risky but at the end of the day you have to take risks to benefit."
As it stands now, I think the gap on Wiggins is enough for the time trial
Back down the road, Wiggins was able to stick with Armstrong until the final kilometre of the last ascent of the day - the Col de la Colombiere - before a surge from the seven-time champion saw him accelerate away.
Both Wiggins and Armstrong drop out of the podium positions but will look to Thursday's time trial in Annecy as a way of clawing back some of the time they have lost.
Defending champion Carlos Sastre also lost more ground as he was unable to keep up with the Schlecks after launching a succession of unsuccessful attacks of his own lower down the Col de Romme.
And Australia's Cadel Evans continued to suffer - the 2007 and 2008 runner-up finishing the stage 29 minutes and 43 seconds after Frank Schleck.
Earlier, Thor Hushovd all but sealed victory in his battle for the green jersey with Britain's Mark Cavendish by winning both the day's intermediate sprints.
Contador remains in control of the race, however, and although he denied working together with the Schlecks at the expense of Kloden and Armstrong, he admitted he was happy with the lead he holds over Wiggins ahead of the time trial.
"The Schlecks asked me to collaborate with them but I said 'no' because I had team-mates behind," said Contador.
"I just decided to stay in their wheel until the finish line. As it stands now, I think the gap on Wiggins is enough for the time trial."
Seven-time Tour winner Armstrong admitted he had to "bite his tongue" over Contador's tactics.
But the American believes Annecy and Saturday's fearsome 21.1km climb up Mount Ventoux will ultimately decide who finishes in the top three on Sunday.
"Second is still my goal, I guess it's still possible," said Armstrong.
"If I don't win it's not the end of the world, but of course I would like to be on the podium in Paris.
"I think we still have two big days. The time trial will shake things out, there will also be a big shake-out at Mount Ventoux."
Stage 17 result:
1. Frank Schleck (Luxembourg / Saxo Bank ) 4 hours 53 minutes 54 seconds 2. Alberto Contador (Spain / Astana ) " 3. Andy Schleck (Luxembourg / Saxo Bank ) " 4. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy / Liquigas ) + 2 mins 18 secs 5. Lance Armstrong (U.S. / Astana ) " 6. Andreas Kloeden (Germany / Astana ) + 2 mins 27 secs 7. Bradley Wiggins (Britain / Garmin ) + 3 mins 07 secs 8. Christophe Moreau (France / Agritubel ) + 4 mins 09 secs 9. Christian Vande Velde (U.S. / Garmin ) " 10. Remi Pauriol (France / Cofidis ) + 6 mins 10 secs
25. Carlos Sastre (Spa/Cervelo) + 7 mins 47 secs 89. Charlie Wegelius (GB/Silence-Lotto) + 29 mins 43 secs 105. David Millar (GB/Garmin) " 116. Mark Cavendish (GB/Columbia) + 35 mins 47 secs
1. Alberto Contador (Spain / Astana ) 72 hours 27 minutes 09 seconds 2. Andy Schleck (Luxembourg / Saxo Bank ) + 2 mins 26 secs 3. Frank Schleck (Luxembourg / Saxo Bank ) + 3 mins 25 secs 4. Lance Armstrong (U.S. / Astana ) + 3 mins 55 secs 5. Andreas Kloeden (Germany / Astana ) + 4 mins 44 secs
6. Bradley Wiggins (GB/ Garmin ) + 4 mins 53 secs 13. Carlos Sastre (Spa/Cervelo) + 11 mins 39 secs 60. Charlie Wegelius (GB/Silence-Lotto) + 1 hr 14 mins 25 secs 75. David Millar (GB/Garmin) + 1 hr 29 mins 57 secs 141. Mark Cavendish (GB/Columbia) + 2hrs 51 mins 25 seconds
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