The cool, controlled veneer that delivered him six-straight grand tour victories was gone. Contador was rocking in his saddle, grimacing and sweating heavily. For the first time in a long time, the Pistolero looked to be shooting blanks.
“Today proved that Alberto is not unbeatable,” Andy Schleck said at the line. “Alberto is not the rival. The maximum rivals now are Basso and Evans.”
The Schlecks delivered the one-two punch that Contador most feared. Fränk Schleck attacked two times before powering away in the final 3km. Contador managed to cover the first two moves, but sat down when Frank went again. The elder of the Schleck brothers took 23 seconds to Contador.
On a day when many expected Contador to begin chipping away at the handicap he holds to the Schlecks and the other GC rivals after a rough and tumble first half of the Tour, Contador lost more time. When the dust settled on Luz-Ardiden, Contador was 2:11 to Frank Schleck, 1:54 to Cadel Evans and 1:43 to Andy Schleck.
The momentum has clearly shifted into the Schleck camp.
“The Tour has finally begun,” Fränk Schleck said after an anti-doping control. “We rode a beautiful race.”
Many thought that perhaps Contador was bluffing. He was coy up and over the Tourmalet, hiding at the back of the lead group as Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt set a brutal pace that decimated the GC pack. Saxo Bank’s Jesus Hernandez tried to make a move near the top of the Tourmalet, but that went nowhere when Voigt buried himself to reel in the aggression to prevent a Contador teammate from getting a head-start on the final climb waiting at Luz-Ardiden. When the pace clicked into high gear in the final 10km, it was every man for himself.
“We were all waiting for the attacks to come from Alberto, but they just didn’t come,” said Tom Danielson, who rode well to climb into the top-10 overall.
Contador put a brave face on the day’s events and even expressed a sense of relief that he didn’t lose more time.
“I am happy about the stage because I am sure that I will get better day by day and that’s the most important,” Contador said after the stage. “Like I said this morning, I was hoping to race up to expectations, because it was the first stage in the mountains and after so many setbacks I’ve had in the first part of the Tour. I had to be a little prudent and not risk too much.”
Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis also tried to calm the hysteria among some journalists, who seem ready to write Contador off.
“I am not disappointed. He lost a little time, but not too much,” Riis said. “It’s not so serious. He said his knee has been hurting, so to be able to get up a climb like this and limit the losses is OK. It was a nice ‘save’ today. It’s true, Alberto is missing that little extra he usually has, so now we have to race in a different manner. There were no other surprises today. The riders who were there were the ones I expected.”
Ivan Basso (Liquigas) was pleased to be able to stay with the top GC rivals and climbed into fifth overall after solid support from teammate Sylvester Szmyd. Basso was quick to remind Italian television that’s it way too early to think that Contador is still not a threat.
“Alberto has had a lot of problems in this Tour, with crashes and other difficulties. And do not forget the efforts of the Giro. I was beat after winning the Giro last year,” Basso said. “No one should under estimate him. He is sure to be a force to be reckoned with in this Tour.”
Friday’s stage over the Aubisque should see some attacks, but with the final summit 40km from the finish line in Lourdes, the route will allow Contador to get one more day in his legs before tackling Saturday’s decisive stage to Plateau de Beille. In previous editions, whoever’s won the stage there has gone on to win the Tour de France.
“I wasn’t at my best today and my pedaling style was not as it usually is,” Contador said. “Tomorrow is better for me, Every day that I can get through will help in my recuperation and I can regain my tone. There is a lot of racing still to come.”
Contador will go down swinging. Whether he can erase the significant time differences to the Schlecks, Evans and Basso remains to be seen.