Ten seconds might not mean much by the time the dust settles on the Champs-Elysées, but those few ticks of the second hand meant the world to Alberto Contador on Friday.
The Astana captain uncorked a blistering acceleration on the short, but steep Mende climb to distance arch-rival Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) for the first time since the Tour de France entered the mountains last weekend in Avoriaz.
The fact that Schleck didn’t panic and defended his yellow jersey didn’t matter to Contador. What mattered was that momentum was on his side for the first time since the opening prologue in Rotterdam.
“It was very important today to show that my legs are working, especially at this point of the race and after a long stage of 210km,” Contador said after the stage. “I could sense that Andy wasn’t at his best and I attacked. It was an important psychological blow.”
Whether the Mende finale represents a true momentum shift remains to be seen, but Contador was needing a boost. Schleck has had him on the ropes since the Tour entered the Alps last weekend.
“I am feeling good as we approach the Pyrénées,” Contador said. “It’s always important to take back time when you can. It’s only a few seconds, but it shows things are on the right track.”
The two-time Tour champ has been under the gun ever since he opened the 2010 Tour with a bang, taking 42 seconds out of Schleck on the short, power track in Rotterdam. Contador lost valuable time on the cobblestones, losing an additional 20 seconds when a broken spoke in his back wheel was rubbing against his brake for the final kilometers.
Then Schleck took the initiative up Avoriaz on Sunday, dropping Contador in the Tour’s first summit finish. Schleck then attacked Contador relentlessly over the Col de la Madeleine on Tuesday, putting Contador on the ropes before the pair rode together to the line to consolidate their mutual rivals.
Schleck took the upper hand that day, riding into the yellow jersey.
Astana was on the offensive Friday. Alexander Vinokourov snuck into the day’s main breakaway and nearly held on for the stage victory. The presence of the attacking Kazakh, who started the day 14th at 6:31, meant that Saxo Bank had to work hard to limit the time gap and not allow Vinokourov to ride back into GC contention.
“I wanted to be up the road to help Alberto if he needed it and to try to win the stage. I can understand why Alberto attacked – he needs to get time on Schleck,” Vinokourov said after finishing third. “Alberto is very strong and he will be even better in the Pyrénées. We are confident about Alberto in the coming stages. The GC is complicated for me. I will ride to help Alberto win the Tour with Astana.”
The main pack roared to the base of the 3.2km Mende climb (thanks to a huge pull by Cervélo in the closing 20km to whittle down the gap to the attacking breakaway to 35 seconds) with all the GC favorites ready to rumble.
Contador has a special relationship with the Mende climb, having twice won here en route to winning Paris-Nice, in 2007 and 2010, respectively. But the Tour is not Paris-Nice and Contador wanted to prove he’s in condition to win his third Tour crown.
“I was on the wheel of Andy and I was expecting him to attack because this is a situation that he should be attacking me, but I could see he couldn’t move,” Contador said. “So I made a move and was able to gap him. It’s too bad I couldn’t win the stage or that Vinokourov couldn’t win, but what’s important is that we were protagonists today.”
There was no panic within the Saxo Bank camp. Schleck defended well, regrouping with some fellow GC contenders and only gave up 10 seconds to comfortably defend his yellow jersey.
“Andy couldn’t follow, we could all see that,” said Saxo Bank sport director Bjarne Riis. “10 seconds? We’re still in yellow. That’s what’s important. The Pyrénées are still ahead of us. Anything can happen there.”