|Garate powers through the finish after bursting up Mont Ventoux [AFP]
Alberto Contador is poised to win his second Tour de France after controlling his main rivals in the 167km penultimate stage to Mont Ventoux.
Spain's Juan Manuel Garate won the most prestigious stage of the race on the slopes of the classic Tour climb, which failed to modify the race standings on the eve of the finale in Paris.
Garate won ahead of Germany's Tony Martin who, like him, belonged to a 16-man breakaway which was gone almost from the start in Montelimar.
The pair were the last two survivors from the break not to be caught on the last climb by the leading favourites, who held together until the finish line despite countless attacks by brothers Andy and Frank Schleck.
Andy finished third in the stage, ahead of Tour leader Contador and American Lance Armstrong, who salvaged his podium spot on the gruelling last ascent on Saturday.
The seven times Tour winner is 5:24 behind the Spaniard and will likely be back on the final podium for the first time since 2005.
Contador was seen helping the American bridge the gap on one of Andy Schleck's moves, proving there were no hard feelings between the two leaders of the Astana team they will probably both leave next season.
"The only thing I had to do was to control Andy Schleck and I was able to do it. He tried to attack many times and he was very strong, but I was too," Contador said.
"I'm also glad we managed to keep Lance in third place."
Briton Bradley Wiggins, who again performed like a sheer mountaineer, finally lost touch in the last kilometre but limited the damage to retain fourth place in the general classification.
The pursuit Olympic champion is three seconds ahead of Frank Schleck, who is set to improve on his sixth place last year.
Andy Shleck, who was also full of praise for Contador, said: "The aim was to defend my second place and put Frank on the podium. It didn't work out because Armstrong was very strong.
"He was undoubtedly the strongest rider in the Tour. He was there every day, never had a bad day. He won three stages and is a gentleman."
Sixteen riders went on the gun in Montelimar to try and tackle the Ventoux ahead of the rest of the pack.
The escapees held a maximum lead of 10:40 of which only 4:30 was left when the bunch tackled the last climb.
On the mountain, swept by a headwind, the fugitives were caught one after another with the exception of Garate and Germany's Tony Martin, who resisted bravely and went on to battle it out for the stage honours.
Garate, a better climber, outpaced Martin on the line and has now won a stage in each of the three big Tours.
"I had already won a stage on the Giro and one on the Vuelta but this is the biggest," said the Rabobank climber, who had started the Tour to help Russian Denis Menchov.
Andy Schleck finished third, 38 seconds adrift, with Contador in his wheel.
The Tour finishes on Sunday after a 164.5km ride from Montereau-Fault Yonne to the Champs-Elysees, usually an ideal terrain for sprinters.
Briton Mark Cavendish will look for his sixth stage victory of this year's Tour on the famous Parisian avenue.