(CNN) -- Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador crossed the line together at the end of the arduous 17th stage of the Tour de France, which finished at the top of the giant Col de Tourmalet, meaning defending champion Contador retains his slender eight-second advantage over his rival.
The final stage in the Pyrenees, and the hardest of the race, always promised to be a battle between the two strongest riders in the peloton -- and it did not disappoint as the duo pulled clear of their rivals at the foot of the 18.6km final ascent, with Schleck eventually finishing just ahead of the Spaniard.
Thursday's 174km stage from Pau, which saw the peloton tackle the category one climbs of the Col de Marie-Blanque and Col du Soulor, prior to the ascent of the giant Tourmalet, presented Schleck with his final real opportunity to try and reclaim the yellow jersey he controversially lost to Contador on Monday.
With only a sprint stage to Bordeaux, the final time-trial and the ceremonial run into Paris to come, Schleck had to get some time into his rival on Thursday -- with Contador the significantly better time-triallist -- and the Saxo Bank rider tried everything to drop Contador on the misty slopes of the Tourmalet.
However, Astana rider Contador, who is now on the verge of his third Tour title to add to his victories in the Vuelta Espana and Giro d'Italia, refused to be shaken off, matching Schleck pedal for pedal before eventually allowing the Luxembourger to cross the line ahead of him for his second stage victory of this year's race.
"I really tried hard, you have to believe me about that," Schleck told the official Tour de France website.
"I changed rhythm and I tried everything but I think we're on the same level on the climbs. In the end he didn't sprint to win the stage because I did the most work and I have a lot of respect for that, it shows that he's a really great champion."
Contador, who has yet to win a stage in this year's race, is now expected to increase his advantage in Saturday's 52km race against the clock to Pauillac.
Another Spaniard, Joaquin Rodriguez, finished third, one minute and 18 seconds behind the leading pair, with Canadian Ryder Hesjedal coming home fourth.
Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez finished fifth, eight seconds ahead of Denis Menchov, to consolidate his lead over the Russian to 21 seconds in the fight for third position on the podium -- although Menchov is still favored to finish third due to his better time-trialling.
Friday's 198km run from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux is expected to finish in a bunch sprint, with Norwegian Thor Hushovd looking to retain the green jersey he won last year.