PIOULENC, France — Alberto Contador knows he is running out of time, and stages, to close the gap on his Tour de France rivals.
The Spaniard's bid for a fourth Tour title has yet to get going as the race enters its final week, a combination of bad luck and a nagging knee injury conspiring to make it difficult for him to launch his trademark attacks in the mountains.
"This is probably the hardest Tour I've done. I have lost a lot of strength since the beginning," Contador said through a translator Monday, the Tour's second rest day. "It's true that without the time loss from the first stage I would be in a good position to win the Tour, and (just) waiting for the last time trial."
Contador must first find a way to claw back from a four-minute deficit on race leader Thomas Voeckler. He also lost time to brothers Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg and two-time runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia.
After 15 of 21 stages, seventh-place Contador trails Frank Schleck by 2:11, Evans by 1:54, Andy Schleck by 1:45 and Ivan Basso by 44 seconds.
Contador and his Saxo Bank team have no choice but to be aggressive in the high climbs of the Alps this week.
The 17th stage Wednesday from Gap to Pinerolo features just one Category 1 ascent and won't be as testing as the excruciating climbs Thursday and Friday that will leave riders exhausted before the 26-mile time trial Saturday.
Stages 18 and 19 feature enormous treks up Col du Galibier, Col d'Izoard and L'Alpe d'Huez - all of them known as HC climbs, or Hors Categorie, because they are too demanding to have a classification.
"The climbs in the Alps are different than the Pyrenees, they are longer and at a higher altitude," the 28-year-old Contador said. "Some riders will suffer from that. But we need to attack, that's for sure."
Contador lost a lot of time to the Schlecks and Evans when he was caught behind a pileup on the first stage.
The bad luck he had then set the tone for the rest of his race. It proved to be a bad omen with Contador falling on Stages 5 and 9, banging his right knee twice.
After his spill on Stage 9, Contador knew had to focus on damage control in the three grueling mountain stages in the Pyrenees.
Considering he was riding with an injury last week, Contador did remarkably well not to lose more than 33 seconds to Frank Schleck, 15 to Andy Schleck and 13 to Evans.