France's Sylvain Chavanel returned to top spot yesterday after a trademark lone attack through the Jura mountains that sent the former leader Fabian Cancellara reeling.
The yellow jersey wearer for 24 hours after his victory in the Ardennes on stage two, Chavanel regained it by repeating his previous strategy – a solo move that pre-empts any skirmishing by the overall contenders. Yet again, it worked to perfection, with the 31-year-old tearing away from the pack 30 kilometres from the finish, close to the summit of the fifth of six classified climbs.
At the other end of the peloton, the Tour's six-day leader Cancellara was in serious trouble for the first time in this year's race in the intense heat. After a kilometre's more climbing, it was game over. The Swiss rider briefly regained contact with the main chasing peloton, but after another acceleration at the front, Cancellara was out of it.
The winner of the opening prologue and the race leader for nearly a week, Cancellara decided to cut his losses and eased back completely. On the last ascent – another relentless climb through pine trees and mountain pastureland – he chatted to team-mates, not looking worried about losing the yellow jersey.
As for the man who was set to replace him as leader, five kilometres from the finish Chavanel passed the last survivor from an earlier breakaway, his French team-mate Jérôme Pineau, and was well on his way to a second stage win. His final advantage of 57 seconds over Rafael Valls of Spain and 1min 47sec on the main pack would have been far wider, had it not been for some unexpected and intriguing attacking between the favourites.
After Saxo Bank had maintained a high rhythm at the foot of the final 14-kilometre climb to the Stations des Rousses in near 40C heat, Alberto Contador's Astana squad swung into action. The Kazakh team's move, so early in the race, was more than surprising, until it emerged that one of arch-rival Lance Armstrong's key support riders, Andreas Klöden, had been dropped. Contador and Astana jumped at the chance of eliminating the German veteran, twice a podium finisher in the Tour, who finally lost over two minutes.
The radical increase in pace at the front of the bunch saw it shrink to less than three dozen riders, containing almost all of the main favourites, including Britain's Bradley Wiggins. The Sky leader moved up the rankings as a result, from 14th to 11th overall – not a major advance, but an encouraging omen for the race's next two days in the Alps.
However, his team-mate Geraint Thomas plummeted from second to 31st overall. Things were already looking bad for Thomas after Chavanel made his move on the second last climb. But the final nail in the coffin proved to be Astana's late acceleration, which proved too much for the 24-year-old Thomas to handle.
Five kilometres from the summit, as the peloton shrank yet again, Thomas dropped back. The Welshman finally lost over five minutes, although his courageous defence of his second place overall for nearly a week raises hopes that he will in future be back at the business end of affairs in the Tour de France.