Bradley Wiggins continued his ferocious and faultless defence of third place overall in the Tour de France yesterday in a short, sharp stage taking in two major Alpine passes.
The day's honours went to Mikel Astarloza of Spain, the fastest of four breakaway riders, but in the main group of favourites behind Wiggins looked more than comfortable during the day's 47 kilometres (29 miles) of climbing.
The key moment for the Londoner came when overall contender Andy Schleck made an all-out attack six kilometres from the summit of the Col du Petit-St-Bernard, the second and final ascent of the day. While riders of the calibre of the seven-times winner Lance Armstrong struggled to follow Schleck's acceleration, Wiggins instantly raised his pace to stay close to the half-dozen other favourites.
In a repeat scenario of Sunday's ascent to Verbier, the Briton responded to Schleck by almost immediately making a brief attempt to counter-attack. But the race leader Alberto Contador personally chased down the Garmin-Slipstream rider and the Londoner's move fizzled out.
"I felt strong, in control," Wiggins said. "I keep telling myself it's hard for everybody, and that I'm not the only one suffering. That helps when a guy like Schleck attacks. There's a lot of guys gone already, and that's good for your morale, too."
Among those favourites who joined Wiggins' "gone already" list yesterday was the Australian Cadel Evans. The runner-up in the last two years finished 3.55 minutes down, his chances of even finishing on the podium in Paris in tatters.
Already defeated by Contador at Verbier, yesterday Armstrong looked briefly as if he was going to join Evans and crack completely. But despite suffering badly when Schleck attacked, the American suddenly seemed to find an extra gear and all but sprinted back up to to the favourites' group again.
For a few moments, Armstrong looked like the invincible winner of old, out of the saddle and standing on the pedals as he blazed uphill. But on reaching Wiggins, Schleck and Contador, he eased back. Armstrong's promise to help his team-mate Contador, rather than attack him, remains intact. Armstrong's return effectively neutered any more attempts by Schleck to isolate Contador and a truce ensued for the rest of the stage.
The only rider to lose contact on the fast, technical descent to the finish in Bourg-St-Maurice was the German Jens Voigt, whose bike skidded out of control when he hit a rut in the road. Voigt went flying and was forced to quit the race with concussion.
Wiggins, meanwhile, finished in the main front group, and remains just 1.46 behind Contador in yellow. For a rider whose only previous Tour finish was 123rd, to be third overall with only five days remaining is exceptional. However, he recognised that today's second Alpine stage may be more difficult. "Today was about control, tomorrow is a bit more of a brothel," Wiggins said, referring to its likely hectic nature. "But physically, I feel good."
Contador handled his first day as race leader equally well, saying afterwards that the stage had ended "without any real changes."
Perhaps more unsettling for Contador was his discovery during the press conference that his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, is almost certain to quit at the end of the year.
The Belgian and Lance Armstrong look certain to break from Astana in 2010, something the American virtually confirmed after the stage when he said on his Twitter feed he would be announcing a "new American partner for our team" tomorrow. Contador said he had other matters to concentrate on for now. "First I want to win the Tour, and that's my top priority," he said. "Just doing that is hard enough, without thinking about the future."
Men to watch: Who can set the pace in the last five days
Alberto Contador (Spanish, rides for the Astana team)
Current position: 1st, leading the race by 1.37 min.
Objective from here: Only overall victory will do.
Will he do it? Following the duels with Lance Armstrong on the two mountain-top finishes, Contador has proved superior to his American team-mate. No problems, either, with the rest of the opposition.
Lance Armstrong (American, Astana)
Current position: 2nd at 1.37
Objective from here: To finish as high up overall as possible. Maybe second in Paris?
Will he do it? It's on the cards – and would be an exceptional result for someone who only ended his three-year retirement in January. At 37, though, the seven-times winner could yet find the climbing too tough.
Andreas Kloden (German, Astana)
Current position: 4th at 2.17.
Objective from here: Top-five placing in Paris.
Will he do it? Apart form Contador, "Klodie" is Astana's best climber. So should the Spaniard need backing in the mountains – unlikely – the veteran will have to forget his own ambitions. If not, Kloden could make it onto the final podium of top-three finishers.
Andy Schleck (Luxembourg-born, Saxo Bank)
Current position: 5th at 2.26 Objective: Doesn't rule out winning.
Will he do it? No, but he will not go quietly either. The only rider to attack Contador in the mountains, Schleck's big handicap is his poor time -trialling. More likely to finish on the podium in Paris.
Thor Hushovd (Norwegian, Cervélo)
Current position: 108th at 1.22.38
Objective: Wants to win the points classification for a second time in three years.
Will he do it? Yes. Has an 18-point advantage over his closest rival, Mark Cavendish, so all he has to do is stay out of trouble and finish at least ninth or higher in the final sprint in Paris.
Bradley Wiggins (British, Garmin-Slipstream)
Current position: 3rd at 1.46
Objective: To finish as high up as possible, although rules out beating Contador. A podium finish in Paris?
Will he do it? It's possible. He is not a natural climber, and the two toughest mountain stages are yet to come. But if Wiggins rides as well as yesterday, he could become Britain's first ever top-three finisher.
Mark Cavendish (British, Columbia-HTC)
Current position: 142nd at 2.15.38
Objective: Get a fifth stage win in Paris.
Will he do it? Only a really bad day in the mountains or a bad crash could now prevent his first ever Tour de France finish. If he gets through, after four bunch sprint wins, he will be the odds-on favourite for a fifth on the Champs Elysées.