A lethal alliance composed of the favourites Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck turned the battle for yellow into a two-way duel yesterday on the toughest Alpine climb of the 2010 Tour. While Bradley Wiggins suffered again in the mountains and slid to sixteenth overall, the Spanish champion and his young rival from Luxembourg put clear water between themselves and the pack.
Contador and Schleck blasted away halfway up the 25.5-kilometre Col de la Madeleine, almost instantly converting the rest of the field into also-rans as they opened up a gap of over two minutes by the summit.
The duo then joined a breakaway group close to the finish, and barely disputed the stage win, taken by the Frenchman Sandy Casar. However, crossing the line with a two-minute advantage on the first of their potential rivals for yellow in Paris, Levi Leipheimer who finished 10th, was more than sufficient damage.
Worst affected was the Australian Cadel Evans, forced to cede the overall lead to Schleck in dramatic fashion after he cracked even before the main attacks started. Evans crossed the line sobbing in pain, over eight minutes down, and the reason for such a dramatic debacle later became clear – his right arm, heavily bandaged from a previous crash, was in fact broken.
Whether the Australian could have resisted the joint uphill charge by Schleck and Contador will remain debatable. What is certain is that the Tour is now down to two riders. "From now on, it's Alberto versus me," said the 25-year-old Schleck, the new Tour leader. "I'll have to attack in the Pyrenees if I want to stay ahead of him in Paris, but we made the race today."
Asked about other rivals, Schleck said: "If I was at five or six minutes, I'd try to turn the tables with a long- distance attack." That may be the only option left for Wiggins, now over seven minutes down. The Londoner was far from being alone when he failed to respond to Shleck and Contador's attack, but he was unable to stay with the closest of the chasing groups either.
Wiggins finished 30th, four minutes 55 seconds back. Philosophical rather than bitter, Wiggins said afterwards: "I did my best but there we go, that's life. So much has been put into this that I don't want to give up. We put everything into it, it hasn't worked. It's not because we haven't tried."
He named a top 10 place overall in Paris as a new possible objective, although that will very much depend on his climbing, which so far has been disappointing. Sky officials insisted that there was nothing physically wrong with Wiggins, rather that, as race coach Rod Ellingworth said, "today's stage was one turn of the screw too many".
Asked to identify what exactly had gone wrong, Ellingworth said: "There's been a lot more movement on the climbs, a lot more attacking, and what Bradley is good at is a steady pace."
All of Britain's eight starters remain, although David Millar, riding with two suspected cracked ribs after falling early in the first week, finished dead last yesterday and may be unable to continue.