A late attack yesterday by Alberto Contador may have gained the overwhelming favourite a mere 10 seconds on race leader Andy Schleck, but, as warning shots go for the fast-approaching Pyrenees, the Spaniard's move could hardly have been more effective.
Three kilometres from the summit of the short but agonisingly steep climb to Mende airfield, Contador ripped out of the pack. Schleck tried his best to respond, but he was at a distinct disadvantage against the featherweight Contador. In less than a dozen pedal strokes, last year's winner was able to open up a margin of nearly 30 seconds on Schleck before being forced to ease off and settle into a steadier rhythm.
However, his change of pace meant he was unable to shake off another Spaniard, Joaquim Rodriguez, of the Russian squad Katusha. After the duo had caught and passed Contador's Astana team-mate Alexandre Vinokourov, Rodriguez – clearly trying to reserve his strength for the stage win – refused to collaborate any further.
Rodriguez then collected his stage win with a suspiciously low level of opposition from Contador – coincidentally or not, the two are good friends and were rookie pros together in the now-defunct Spanish Once squad – but the real interest was in how much time Contador could make up on Schleck. Finally, the difference was only 10 seconds, allowing Contador to reduce the difference between himself and the yellow jersey to 31sec, but on a symbolic level Contador's attack had far greater importance.
"It was an important psychological blow," he insisted. "It was good to see that my body can respond like that after 210 kilometres of racing."
Schleck was predictably philosophical about what, time-wise, was a minor defeat, and gave a drily humourous answer when asked what was going through his mind when Contador attacked: "What did I think? Au revoir, Alberto – that's all. We'd already discussed the climb this morning, my director said 'when Contador goes, just continue at your own pace'."
As Schleck pointed out, there was also an element of sporting revenge in Contador's move: "On the race's first big summit finish, at Morzine-Avoriaz, Contador lost 10 seconds to me and now he's got them back, so we're even, he's not ahead. But it's the Pyrenees that will decide the race"
Schleck also said the stage had been "horrible", and while Bradley Wiggins survived an early fall with nothing more than some cuts and bruises, and even finished 14th on the stage, yesterday's relentless five-hour grind through the Ardèche certainly had several different nightmarish qualities to it.
Britain's Mark Cavendish also continues to dream of wearing the green points jersey in Paris, and today the HTC-Columbia leader has another opportunity to make up lost ground.
A third-category climb close to the finish at Revel could prove a challenge for the Manxman but, last year in Aubenas, Cavendish scored one of his most spectacular stage wins in the Tour after getting over an even tougher ascent.Reuse content