MENDE, France, (Reuters) – Defending champion Alberto Contador warned Tour de France race leader Andy Schleck what to expect in the Pyrenees stages with a blistering attack on one of his favourite climbs in Mende yesterday.
Contador was beaten on the finish line of the 12th stage by fellow Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez but his move in the last two kilometres allowed him to take 10 seconds off Schleck, whom he now trails by 31 seconds in the overall standings.
Contador’s right-hand man Alexandre Vinokourov, who went early in a breakaway, took third and forced his Astana team mate’s rivals to chase behind him all day.
Seven-times champion Lance Armstrong, who all but lost the race last Sunday following a crash, was dropped in the final ascent, crossing the line in 57th, 3:35 off the pace.
The 38-year-old American, riding his last Tour, lies 32nd in the overall standings, 21:16 behind Schleck.
“That was one helluva hard day,” Armstrong wrote on Twitter.
There had been suggestions since the start of the Tour, and especially in the Alps, that Contador, the 2007 and 2009 champion, might have lost his edge in the climbs.
He set the record straight on a climb at the top of which he won Paris-Nice stages in 2007 and this year.
“It’s true that I love this climb. Today I owed it to myself and to the race to attack. It was an important day for me,” Contador told reporters.
“I attacked late when I sensed that Andy was faltering a little. It’s always good to take some time back even though I would have like to take more than 10 seconds,” he added.
Luxembourg’s Schleck conceded Contador’s move had been “very intelligent”, but said it had not affected his morale.
“Ten seconds is exactly the time I took off him in the stage to Morzine. It’s a sort of revenge,” the 25-year-old said.
“I feel well and the race will be decided between us in the Pyrenees,” he added.
There was a small disappointment for Contador as the stage win eluded him and Vinokourov but his Kazakh team captain vowed to try again.
“We played it smart in the finale. Too bad we did not win. We finish two and three but this gives us confidence ahead of the Pyrenees,” Vinokourov said.
Two places on the podium confirmed Contador had a team able to assist him in the intimidating Pyrenees, which the peloton will tackle from Sunday for four stages.
Only Rodriguez, with whom Contador joined forces in the finale, deprived him of a third victory on the hill bearing the name of Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, winner of a Tour stage here in 1995.
Katusha rider Rodriguez amply deserved his first Tour stage win.
“I knew I would be able to react to Alberto if he attacked. I executed my plan to perfection,” he said.
At 31 and despite 10 years in the professional ranks, a stage win in the Spanish Vuelta and a bronze medal at the world championships, Rodriguez is taking part in his first Tour.