Race leader Thomas Voeckler suffered but survived on the Tour's first incursion into the foothills of the Alps yesterday after Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans chanced their arms on the final climb of a rain-soaked stage.
Voeckler, like the rest of the pack, was caught by surprise when Contador gave his strongest indication yet that the knee injury which could have wrecked his chances of winning the Tour is a thing of the past.
As the rain teemed down, the Spaniard's third punchy attack on a shallow but 9km-long second-category climb saw the Saxo Bank leader go clear with Evans and the Luz Ardiden victor, Samuel Sanchez.
Then on a dangerous, narrow descent Evans took more risks than either Contador or Sanchez and opened up a few seconds' gap. Even if the stage win was long since the property of Thor Hushovd, Evans' lone drive managed to gain him three seconds on Contador, 21 seconds on Voeckler, and – above all – 69 seconds on Andy Schleck.
Voeckler admitted that he was "not pleased with losing time, particularly when I thought I was on a good day... I didn't expect his move, though, just an acceleration at the top of the climb." Contador's team manager, Bjarne Riis, said: "We have to take every chance, we have to make our moves."
Still, Voeckler remains in yellow, for all that Contador has moved up to sixth and Evans' status as top overall contender has been even more strongly reinforced, while the big loser of the day was Andy Schleck.
There was disappointment, too, in the Sky camp after Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen was outwitted by compatriot Hushovd and his Garmin-Cervelo team-mate Ryder Hesjedal in a three-way battle for the stage. "It was like a mini Norwegian national championship," Hushovd said after claiming the 10th stage win of his career.
While every day that Voeckler holds on to the yellow is a major triumph in itself, Mark Cavendish, too, seemed satisfied, to the point that when asked if he thought he could win the green jersey, he said "I think so". However, he immediately qualified that with "I'm just going to have to suffer for the next three days in the Alps" – starting today.
* Highly-rated Welsh prospect Geraint Thomas, who is riding his third Tour, yesterday agreed a new three-year contract with Team Sky after reports linking him with a move to other teams.
Stage details and standings
Stage 16 (Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux - Gap, 163km):
1 T Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo 3hrs 31mins 38secs.
2 E Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling at same time.
3 R Hesjedal (Can) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 0:02.
4 T Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad at 0:38.
5 M Ignatyev (Rus) Katusha Team at 0:52.
6 A Perez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1:25.
7 J Roy (Fr) FDJ at same time.
8 M Marcato (It) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team at 1:55.
9 D Devenyns (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team at same time.
10 A Grivko (Ukr) Pro Team Astana at 1:58.
33 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 05mins 17secs.
43 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 06:18.
1 T Voeckler (Fr) Team Europcar 69hrs 00mins 56secs.
2 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 1:45.
3 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 1:49.
4 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 3:03.
5 S Sanchez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3:26.
6 A Contador (Sp) Saxo Bank Sungard at 3:42.
7 I Basso (It) Liquigas-Cannondale at 3:49.
8 D Cunego (It) Lampre-ISD at 4:01.
9 T Danielson (US) Team Garmin-Cervelo at 6:04.
10 R Uran (Col) Sky Procycling at 7:55.
King of the mountains standings
1 J Vanendert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 74 points.
2 S Sanchez (Sp) Euskaltel 72 pts.
1 M Cavendish (GB) HTC - Highroad 319 pts.
2 J J Rojas (Sp) Movistar 285 pts.
1 Garmin (US) at 206hrs 31mins 24secs.
2 Leopard (Lux) at 7:01.
3 Europcar (Fr) at 8:14.