After an entire second week that failed to shake any riders off the top of the general classification, today's first foray into the Alps did not disappoint. With 207 kilometers on the menu, several categorized climbs, and a mountaintop finish on the steep Verbier, Alberto Contador (Astana) took the race by the horns, decimated the competition, and moved into the yellow jersey.
Ten riders tried their luck today in the breakaway, a fairly large group, and it would have had a good chance on a flat course, but with the crucial mountaintop finish, no rider up ahead stood a chance as the overall contenders blasted their way up the final climb.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence-Lotto), Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Fabian Cancellara (SaxoBank), José Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Amael Moinard, David Moncoutié (Cofidis), Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom), Simon Spilak (Lampre), and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) established a maximum advantage of only five minutes or so, as Astarloza was only three minutes behind on the overall classification, and Astana was not going to play around by giving away yellow today.
The race remained status quo over the several category-three climbs along the course. They were not particularly difficult and Astana was content to set the pace at the front of the field, biding their time before the Verbier.
With 20 kilometers remaining, riders in the breakaway began to get frisky. Spilak was the first out of the group to make his attack. Interestingly, only two days ago, Spilak finished the 13th stage dead last, a whopping 45 minutes behind stage winner Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo), well outside the time cut necessary to continue on with the Tour. Due to the harsh conditions and hypothermia, however, race organizers allowed him to continue.
He was now at the front of the race in a desperate move that was destined to fail. Riders began to chase Spilak and his advantage was being whittled away.
Behind, though, the fireworks were starting to light. The Liquigas team was on the front of the field, policing the group for their leaders Roman Kreuzinger and Vincenzo Nibali. Astana was right behind.
Then the pace quickened. Saxobank made its way up to the front of the field and hammered hard. Contenders like defending champion Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) and Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) were spit out the back. Jens Voigt (Saxobank) was setting a vicious tempo that, for a while, looked to be race-deciding.
Up ahead, Cancellara and Hesjedal dropped back from the breakaway, not because they were too tired, but because they were following team orders to drop back and assist in the pace-making for the elite group.
Slowly, all the breakaway riders met their fate as the main group was flying up the Verbier. Evans managed to hold his own tempo and claw his way back to the group. Sastre followed suit a kilometer later.
Just when it looked like the pace could not get any higher, 2007 champion Alberto Contador shot out of the pack with five kilometers remaining. Not a single rider could touch the Spaniard, as his mountain attacks are almost unbeatable in the world of professional cycling.
Andy Schleck (Saxobank) tried to follow suit, but Contador was almost 20 seconds up the road before Schleck looked like he was gaining ground.
Behind, Lance Armstrong (Astana) was playing the loyal teammate and stayed with the main group containing Evans, Sastre, Bradley Wiggins (Garmin), Andreas Kloden (Astana), and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas). Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) had been dropped from this group, and his high overall place was looking threatened.
As the pitch steepened, Contador simply got out of the saddle and pounded the pedals. He was looking smooth, powerful, and composed, something his other rivals lacked.
Contador soon put 50 seconds into a chasing Schleck, while Wiggins, Nibali, and older brother Frank Schleck (Saxobank) attacked the Armstrong group in search of Contador. Sastre recovered from the early attacks and managed to rejoin this chasing group ahead of Armstrong and Kloden.
As Contador reached the finish line, he pumped his chest and gave his now familiar pistol shot as he received overwhelming applause from the crowd.
Andy Schleck came in 43 seconds later.
The chasing group was led in by Nibali, 1:03 behind Contador, ahead of Frank Schleck, Wiggins, and Sastre.
Armstrong lost 1:35 to Contador today and it is more than evident now who the top dog is on the Astana team. It is important to know that if he was simply holding back and letting other riders chase Contador, he would have finished with the Nibali group. He was under real strain today and finished 30 seconds behind the main chasers.
The overall classification greatly shakes up today, the first re-shuffling in a week. Week-long leader Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R) lost three minutes today and said goodbye to his yellow jersey.
Contador assumes command of the race, and he will be looking to take that jersey to Paris. Armstrong formidably slots into second overall at 1:37 behind Contador. Former track sprinter Wiggins moves up into third place at 1:46 adrift. Kloden keeps fourth, while Andy Schleck is now in fifth, 2:26 behind.
Andy Schleck also moved into the white jersey of best young rider ahead of Nibali and previous leader Tony Martin (Columbia-HTC).
Pre-race contenders Sastre and Evans seem to have been pounded into submission today, as they are now a whopping 3:52 and 4:27, respectively, behind Contador.
2009 Giro d'Italia champion Denis Menchov (Rabobank) is now nowhere to be seen, more than 11 minutes behind.
Tomorrow is the second and final rest day of the Tour, so no racing takes place. Riders get the chance to rest, recover, and think about their situation. Racing resumes on Tuesday with a 159-kilometer stage into Bourg St. Maurice. It takes in two monstrous climbs, the beyond-category Great St. Bernard Pass and the first-category Little St. Bernard Pass.
The downhill finish into Bourg St. Maurice will mean it will not be as decisive as today's mountaintop finish, but only an elite group of GC contenders will be able to survive this hard stage. Maybe a strong climber can win out of a breakaway, but that is less likely than on previous stages.