Pedaling as he were as light as air, Alberto Contador pulled away from a small group that included his Astana teammate Lance Armstrong at 6 km to the top of Verbier, and became the winner today of the stage, and the new owner of the Yellow Jersey.
Contador’s win with 1 minute 37 seconds eclipsed the still significant fact that Armstrong, age 37, stole back second place in the overall classification, and knocked Nocentini out of the top three. Bradley Wiggins was third.
Pic: Contador in Yellow (Benepe (c))
It looked like the same scene that played out in stage 7 from Barcelona, when Contador took off near the mountain finish to Arcalis to capture 2nd overall in the general classification, leaving Armstrong in the dust and raising the question among the media whether the move had been blessed by the team manager Johan Bruyneel, and indeed, the ostensible leader, Armstrong.
It was first decisive stage of the Alps, capturing the Yellow Jersey, and possibly spoiling at least for now, the chances for Lance Armstrong to win the Tour. Only because from now until Annecy, lie the toughest mountain stages of this race, and the riders are sure to tire as they worsen.
From the outside it was unclear if Contador was playing his own cards, or carrying out a careful strategy designed by team manager Johan Bruyneel to wet the appetites of fans in the alps with some wins for Contador, and possible wins for Armstrong later on.
Pic: Armstrong in interview after race
But in a private interview late tonight held between Contador and Spanish reporter Chema Olmo on Onda Cero Radio of Spain--which BBB was invited to sit in on, Contador said in a team meeting this morning they discussed whether he should break away, and that he had the blessings of Bruyneel and Armstrong to do so if the opportunity arose and Armstrong could not follow.
Contador in interview the night he won the Yellow Jersey at Verbier (Benepe (c))
Held at the Hotel Castel in Scion, some 20 kilometers from Martigny, appearing very thin and shy, and speaking in Spanish, Contador said that Astana was the strongest team in the race, and that they helped him win today. On the table in front of him he played with his two new numbers which he will wear on Tuesday on the stage from Martigny to Bourg Saint Maurice. In a plastic bag was his new Yellow Jersey kit with the Astana name on it.
Pic: Schleck in an interview (Benepe (c))
Contador also said that winning the tour is very important to him because when he won in 2007, he only did so because the rider then in the Yellow Jersey, Michael Rasmussen was disqualified, and removed by his team Rabobank. He also believes that he can win this year’s tour.
Armstrong told the press today that he did not have the legs to follow Contador, nor Shleck, and that Contador was the better man for the stage. “Before today we thought he was stronger, but now we know it,” said Armstrong of Contador.
Tomorrow’s rest day may not do much to help Armstrong in the mountains on Tuesday, when the teams cycle from Martigny to Bourg Saint Maurice. It’s a stage that is sure to torture even Contador who seemed to sprint away from Armstrong today like a young billy goat.
The Contador-Armstrong drama was not the only significant drama to play out in the final kilometers of the race. First Contador took off at 5.8 km from the top from a group that included Armstrong, Andrea Kloden, Bradley Wiggins of Garmin Slipsteam, Andy Schleck and Frank Schleck of Saxo Bank and Vincenzo Niballi of Lquigas. Soon Andy Schleck pulled away from Armstrong, and it became the three of them battling it out, with everyone left behind, first Contador, then Schleck and finally Armstrong. The Nibali pulled out in front, and Frank Schleck followed.
Pic: Cofidis Rider Amael Moinard, who was in 12-man break before mountains, (Benepe (c))
Christian Vande Velde who had been part of the split, was dropped by Armstrong at 3.9 km from the top. Frank Schleck also pulled away from Armstrong and became the fourth man up after Vincento Nibali of Liquigas. Carlos Sastre was also in the fray coming in 6th in the stage.
BBB did the ride from the bottom at Martigny to the top of Verbier prior to the race and can attest to the difficulty (following story). At approximate 6 km from the top, the grade changes slightly: the first 3 kilometers are the last 10 are the worst. Meaning, Contador pulled away at the exact right moment.
Prior to the mountains the race played out as it has on previous days, with a breakaway group that formed around 40 km from the start and included 12 riders Mikel Astarloza of Euskatel, David Moncoutie of Cofidis, Jurgen Van den Broeck of Silence-Lotto, Jose Ivan Gutierrez of Caisse D'Epargne, Hesjedal Ryder of Garmin Slipstream, Fabian Cancellara of Saxo Bank, Pierrick Fedrigo of B-Box, Amael Moinard of Cofidis, Juan Antonio Flecha of Rabobank, and Simon Spilak of Lampre.
Spilak took off on his own at the 20.7 km to go mark, and maintained an almost one minute lead until various riders attacked behind him Vincenzo Nibali who led the charge, Mikel Astarloza and Jose Ivan Guiterrez.
Other attacks and counter attacks that occurred over the 15th stage's 207.5 km were in the dust by the time the peleton reached Martigny and the base of the mountain road to Verbier.
General classification standings
1. CONTADOR Alberto 21 ASTANA 63h 17' 56"
2. ARMSTRONG Lance 22 ASTANA 63h 19' 33" + 01' 37"
3. WIGGINS Bradley 58 GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM 63h 19' 42" + 01' 46"
4. KLÖDEN Andréas 23 ASTANA 63h 20' 13" + 02' 17"
5. SCHLECK Andy 31 TEAM SAXO BANK 63h 20' 22" + 02' 26"
6. NOCENTINI Rinaldo 87 AG2R LA MONDIALE 63h 20' 26" + 02' 30"
7. NIBALI Vincenzo 95 LIQUIGAS 63h 20' 47" + 02' 51"
8. MARTIN Tony 76 TEAM COLUMBIA - HTC 63h 21' 03" + 03' 07"
9. LE MEVEL Christophe 106 FRANCAISE DES JEUX 63h 21' 05" + 03' 09"
10. SCHLECK Frank 36 TEAM SAXO BANK 63h 21' 21" + 03' 25"
11. SASTRE Carlos 1 CERVELO TEST TEAM 63h 21' 48" + 03' 52"
1. CONTADOR Alberto 21 ASTANA 5h 03' 58"
2. SCHLECK Andy 31 TEAM SAXO BANK 5h 04' 41" + 00' 43"
3. NIBALI Vincenzo 95 LIQUIGAS 5h 05' 01" + 01' 03"
4. SCHLECK Frank 36 TEAM SAXO BANK 5h 05' 04" + 01' 06"
5. WIGGINS Bradley 58 GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM 5h 05' 04" + 01' 06"
6. SASTRE Carlos 1 CERVELO TEST TEAM 5h 05' 04" + 01' 06"
7. EVANS Cadel 11 SILENCE - LOTTO 5h 05' 24" + 01' 26"
8. KLÖDEN Andréas 23 ASTANA 5h 05' 27" + 01' 29"
9. ARMSTRONG Lance 22 ASTANA 5h 05' 33" + 01' 35"
10. KIRCHEN Kim 75 TEAM COLUMBIA - HTC 5h 05' 53" + 01' 55"