Bradley Wiggins stormed back into contention in yesterday's time trial to move back up to fourth overall with just 11 seconds separating him from third-placed Lance Armstrong on the Tour podium.
Following his stinging defeat in the Alps on Wednesday, the Briton bounced back with a solid sixth place in yesterday's 40.5 kilometre race against the clock, snaking around the shores of Lake Annecy. The Garmin-Slipstream rider was the second fastest of the entire field two thirds of the way through the course, briefly raising hopes that he could take the first Tour stage of his career. But a sudden shower and strong winds slowed almost all the favourites in the final part of the circuit back in to Annecy, leaving the Londoner out of the running for the day's honours.
"Conditions changed quite a bit from the top of the climb to the finish, it was a block headwind," Wiggins said. "I lost a bit of time in the last part, and that made the difference."
The only rider who seemed impervious to the conditions was race leader Alberto Contador, who followed up his sterling performances in the mountains with a stage victory by three seconds over world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara. A tight margin, perhaps, but Contador's advantage over his overall rivals was more important than his edge on the Swiss.
Contador crossed the line 43 seconds ahead of Wiggins, and 1 minute 45 seconds ahead of key rival Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. The Spaniard now faces the last challenge of the Tour, the 20 kilometre ascent of the Mont Ventoux on Saturday, with a more than comfortable cushion of four minutes and 11 seconds over Andy Schleck and five minutes and 25 seconds over Armstrong.
If a second Tour victory in three years for Contador now looks all but certain, the Astana rider seemed much less at ease when faced with repeated questions over alleged suspicions concerning his strength on the climbs. The Spaniard twice refused to answer. Then when asked directly by an American journalist to give his VO2 max – a measurement of his maximum oxygen consumption – the Madrileño simply snapped back "otra pregunta" – "next question".
Contador's unusual reticence cast a sour note on an evening where his team-mate Armstrong was celebrating both a return to the podium and a sponsor for his new squad. For the first third of the course, the Texan rolled back the years by using his familiar high-speed pedalling technique to post the fourth-best time for the first 18 kilometres. But on the winding climb of La Bluffy, his head sagged and he seemed suddenly to lose almost all his energy. A victim, like Wiggins, of the headwind in the last third of the race, he finished sixteenth, one minute and 30 seconds down.
The Texan's chances of his first stage victory since 2005 might have disappeared because of the change of weather conditions, but Armstrong nonetheless moved up to third overall. With just one major stage left to race, it represents an amazing achievement for the 37-year-old.
Then just minutes after he had crossed the finish line, a press release then announced his new team sponsor for 2010. The all-American squad will be backed by electronics company RadioShack, and Armstrong will not only take part in bike races, but will also race triathlons. First though, the American will have to defend his third place in the 2009 Tour on the Mont Ventoux on Saturday – no easy task, as Wiggins observed.
"I think it's all going to come down to the Ventoux now," the Londoner said. "If someone said 'do you want to settle for fourth or gamble for a bit higher and have to race up the Ventoux?', I'd probably say I'd settle for fourth."
Tour de France: Race leaders
Race leader Alberto Contador (Sp), Astana
Points leader Thor Hushovd (Nor), Cervélo
Leading climber Franco Pellizotti (It), Liquigas
Young rider Andy Schleck (Lux), Saxo BankReuse content