Overwhelming favourite Alberto Contador finally netted the Tour's lead with a searing mountain attack yesterday, but he also ran into a huge controversy over the ethics of challenging for top position when his main rival – Andy Schleck – was desperately trying to repair his bike on the roadside.
Booed and whistled when the Spaniard stepped onto the podium to collect his first yellow jersey of the 2010 race, Contador now has an eight-second advantage on Schleck. But for the crowds at the finish at least, there was little doubt as to who the moral leader of the Tour really is.
Contador's attack came on the crucial final climb, the Porte de Bales, and just seconds after Schleck, clad in the leader's yellow jersey, had launched his own powerful move. The Saxo Bank rider appeared to have caught Contador napping and opened up a gap of several metres on the pack of a dozen riders including the Spaniard.
But as Contador finally responded, regaining ground, Schleck was straining so hard and possibly trying to make a huge gear change – in a car, the equivalent would be from first to fourth – that his bike chain came off.
In a split second, the positions between the two were reversed: rather than distancing Contador and confirming his overall lead, Schleck was on the side of the road, fiddling desperately with his chain, while Contador was – for the first time in the Tour – ahead of him on a major mountain pass.
While Schleck lost around close to a minute before finally resolving his problem, two other key contenders, Samuel Sanchez and Denis Menchov, joined forces with Contador in trying to open up as big a gap as possible.
The Spaniard claimed later – unconvincingly – that he had not seen Schleck standing on the side of the road, but to judge by his half-hearted participation in the attack, he was not entirely comfortable with the situation, either.
By the summit, although the stage win was no longer possible – that went to France's Thomas Voeckler after a superb lone attack – Contador and Co had opened up a 27-second gap. Four more, and the race lead would be his.
Following the wheel of one of the top downhillers, 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez, hugely facilitated Contador's descent of one of the Pyrenees's most complicated climbs.
However, behind, Schleck was just as determined not to let the yellow jersey out of his clutches. Sadly for him, Contador's margin stretched wider, despite an incident on the last corner when he brushed past Frenchman Lloyd Mondory with barely an inch of space between himself and the barriers.
Seventh on the stage, Contador's advantage over Schleck was 39 seconds, enough to gain him the race lead. But as Schleck crossed the line with a face like thunder, it was clear this was going to be no triumphant seizure of power.
Organisers tried to play down the incident, calling it circumstances des course, a convenient catch-all phrase which justifies any sort of scenario that falls between the lines of the regulations. "This is just one of those things that happens," said Jean-François Pescheaux, the Tour's director.
Schleck was having none of it. "My stomach is full of fire," he said, "I'm going to have my revenge. I'm really disappointed with what's happened, and I would never be happy to take the yellow jersey in such circumstances."
Looking uncharacteristically miserable despite leading the world's biggest bike race, Contador defended himself as best he could. "Thirty seconds up, thirty seconds down – the Tour's not going to be decided by such a small margin," the 27-year-old claimed.Reuse content