ST JEAN DE MAURIENNE, France, (Reuters) – Andy Schleck seized the Tour de France reins after joining forces with defending champion Alberto Contador in a hard, 204.5-km Alpine stage in which most of the other favourites dropped out of contention.
Australian Cadel Evans, the race leader at the start yesterday, was unable to stay in contact because of a fractured elbow suffered in a crash in the previous stage on Sunday.
Contador and Schleck, the top two riders in the last Tour, launched the decisive move together on the first unrated mountain pass this year, the long and punishing Col de la Madeleine.
“Today the aim was to drop Contador but it was not possible; he was too strong,” said Luxembourg’s Schleck after putting on the first yellow jersey of his career. “But he was unable to drop me either. “It’s now obvious that we are above the rest. We’re pretty equal I think, only he needs to take 41 seconds back from me.”
World champion Evans crossed the line in tears, eight minutes and eight seconds after stage winner Sandy Casar of France.
Only then did his BMC team director John Lelangue reveal the extent of his injury from Sunday’s crash, which also involved seven-times champion Lance Armstrong.
“We decided to keep it secret and to go on anyway,” Lelangue told journalists.
Unaware of Evans’s injury, Schleck and Contador launched a punishing assault 40 kms from the line. Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain was the only one to limit the damage and is now 2:45 behind Schleck overall in third place.
As the race reaches the halfway mark, Russia’s Denis Menchov is 2:59 off the pace and American Levi Leipheimer is 3:59 adrift while the leaders of most other teams are more than five minutes behind.
In the last seven kilometres of the Madeleine climb, Schleck unsuccessfully attacked Spaniard Contador three times. The two riders were seen chatting shortly before the summit and decided to join forces against the rest of the field.
“I know what I have to do and what wheel I need to follow and that’s Andy’s,” Contador said. “It was a good move today because we took a lot of time away from the others.”
Armstrong, whose hopes of an eighth win were dashed in Sunday’s crash, said he was feeling much happier after Monday’s rest day.
“I feel better. I find myself in a position where we try to get (RadioShack team mate) Levi up as much as possible,” the American said.
Casar’s stage win was the third of his career. The FDJ rider outsprinted Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez in the final stretch to get revenge for last year when the Spaniard beat him in St Girons. Italy’s Damiano Cunego was third.
The peloton spend a final day in the Alps today for a 179-km ride from Chambery to Gap with only one major climb, early in the stage.