LE MONETIER-LES-BAINS, France — Andy Schleck led a daring attack in the Alps to win the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, putting him within seconds of the yellow jersey and quashing Alberto Contador's hopes of a fourth title.
France's Thomas Voeckler, in a show of grit, narrowly kept the lead by muscling up a punishing final climb to limit the damage at the end of the 125-mile trek from Pinerolo, Italy, to the Galibier Serre-Chevalier ski station in France.
Contador started the stage trailing Voeckler by several minutes after a rough start to the three-week race and finished it with a dismal final climb.
"Victory is impossible now," he said. "I had a bad day. My legs didn't respond, and I just hit a wall. It was a very difficult day right from the start."
Schleck began the day in fourth place and is 15 seconds behind Voeckler. He attacked on the second of three grueling climbs and held on all the way on the fabled Galibier pass to the highest-altitude finish in the race's 108-year history.
"I told the team yesterday that I had this in mind. I wasn't going to be fourth in Paris," Schleck said. "I said I'd risk it all. ... It's my character: I'm not afraid to lose."
Standing next to Schleck, Voeckler - who repeatedly has insisted that he can't win when the race finishes Sunday in Paris - said: "You'll get it."
Frank Schleck was second Thursday, trailing his brother by 2 minutes, 7 seconds. Cadel Evans of Australia was third. Voeckler was fifth Thursday, 2:21 behind. Frank Schleck is third overall, 1:08 back. Evans is fourth, 1:12 off the pace.
Contador was the day's biggest loser, trailing in 15th place - 3:50 behind. Overall, he trails the French leader by 4:44 in seventh place.
"Please, let me breathe," an exhausted Voeckler said at the finish, mustering the strength to raise a fist in joy once he saw he'd kept the yellow jersey. "At 2,650 meters, the oxygen is thin."
"I limited the damage," he added. "I went all out."
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