Alberto Contador turned the after-burners on to fire himself up the slopes to Verbier today. The Spaniard made it look easy as he climbed in to the yellow jersey on the first stage in the Alps. Lance Armstrong moved up into second overall with Bradley Wiggins in third.
On the day nobody could live with Contador almost as soon as the road lifted sharply he was off and nobody could catch – Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) tried but trailed in 43 seconds back. Vincent Nibali of Liquigas came in third repaying all the work his team put in to speed the pack across the valley floor to the foot of the climb into Verbier.
Of the rest of the contenders Frank Schleck, Wiggins and Carlos Sastre came in together 1:06 back in 4th, 5th and 6th places respectively. Cadel Evans was another 20 seconds back in 7th place and Astana's Andrea Kloeden came in 8th (and moved up to fourth overall). Lance Armstrong finished behind Kloeden 1:35 down on Contador.
True to form in this edition of the Tour the break went early, before Astana put the shutters down, and it quickly coalesced into a 10 man group, and an interesting bunch too: Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence Lotto), Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel), Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Amael Moinard and David Moncoutie (both Cofidis), Pierrick Fedrigo (Bbox), Simon Spilak (Lampre) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank).
Moncoutie was clearly in the hunt for the stage win and as he wasn't challenging in any of the major classifcations he probably fancied his chances, especially as he had his team mate Amael Moinard for company. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence Lotto) was Other interesting names in the frame were Fabian Cancellara and in particular Mikel Astarloza only 0:3:02 down on the yellow jersey. The size of the break held out the possibility that like yesterday's 12 man group they could stay away.
As they crossed the valley floor the peloton stepped on the gas courtesy of Liquigas eager to protect Franco Pellizotti's lead in the mountain's classification and with climbers in their ranks like Roman Kreuziger and Vincent Nibali who might also fancy their chances of a stage win.
At 7.5% the 8.8km climb up to Verbier is not that steep: what makes it harder is that for 8-10Km beforehand the road across the valley is going up hill and the combination of that drag and the pace being set at the front by Astana, Milram, Rabobank and Saxo Bank had splintered the peloton long before they reached the start of the climb. The sprinters were almost immediately shelled out of the back.
Up ahead Simon Spilak rode off the front of the break and got himself 15 seconds on the nine riders behind. Chapeaux! to Spilak, the Slovak rider finished last on Friday's rain-soaked stage to Colmar over 45 minutes down and being eliminated – he was allowed back in because the race referee decided that he'd been hampered by having to ride on opened roads and cope with traffic. Mindful of that fact the rest of the escape seemed to decide not to waste energy chasing… behind them the Liquigas and Astana-led peloton are eating up the gap with quickly drops towards two minutes.
At 15Km Spilak had a minute, incredibly the rest of the break couldn't seem to get themselves together, finally Astarloza's patience snapped seeing his chance of yellow disappearing he set off up the road on his own with Van Den Broeck in tow. All that effort proved to be in vain as soon as the main players hit the climb: all three might as well have been riding on square wheels. Spilak came home in 70th place 7:26 down on Contador, but a hell of a lot better than last.
As the peloton hit the climb Garmin Slipstream hit the front, sweeping up the remnants of the day's break with Millar, Wiggins and Vande Velde in evidence. Jens Voigt then took things up for Saxo Bank and Andy Schlec, with Wiggins still on his shoulder and Vande Velde on his… Armstrong was there too, Rinaldo Nocentini wasn't the game was finally up for the man who'd worn yellow for over a week.
Cancellara was caught but really turned on the power in a bid to help Andy Schleck, then Frank Schleck took it on, all the while with Contador and Armstrong in attendance. And then it was race on Contador put the after-burners on and went. Armstrong stayed behind with Frank Schleck while Andy Schleck tried to bridge across.
Astana demonstrated their strength in depth with Andreas Kloeden setting the pace for Armstrong, Schleck F and Wiggins B were still sticking with Armstrong and Vande Velde was slipping back. Sastre meanwhile was coming forward to join the Armstrong group. At 3Km to go Contador had 45 seconds on Armstrong and co. Wiggins then had a dig before Frank Schleck attacked trying to nip across to his brother to help him haul back Contador. Wiggins and Nibali then bridged across to him and Sastre attacked out of the group to join them. Nibali gave it one last push to claim the final podium place for the stage.
Today was a real test of credentials for all those seriously dreaming of wearing yellow in Paris in a week's time, and it provided the answers to some big questions. We now know for certain who is the boss at Astana and who is the man to beat in this Tour – Alberto Contador answered those questions emphatically.
We also know the identity of this year's surprise package, step forward Bradley Wiggins – are we looking at Britain's first podium finisher? With a time trial still to come we just might be. Sastre we now know can still do it in the mountains, but he won't win, neither will Evans. Andy Schleck may still fancy his chances of at least getting on the podium but then so will Andreas Kloeden and that man Armstrong. He may not be top dog at Astana, but he is still a contender.
Racing resumes on Tuesday with the 159Km stage from Martigny to Bourg Saint Maurice with the hors category Great St. Bernard Pass followed by a downhill finish from the summit of the first category Little St Bernard Pass… bring it on!
Top 10 Tour de France Stage 15
1) Alberto Contador Velasco (Astana) 5:03:58 2) Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 0:00:43 3) Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 0:01:03 4) Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 0:01:06 5) Bradley Wiggins (Garmin - Slipstream) 0:01:06 6) Carlos Sastre Candil (Cervelo TestTeam) 0:01:06 7) Cadel Evans (Silence - Lotto) 0:01:26 8) Andreas Klöden (Astana) 0:01:29 9) Lance Armstrong (Astana) 0:01:35 10) Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia - HTC) 0:01:55
Top 10 on General Classification after Stage 15
1) Alberto Contador Velasco (Astana) 63:17:56 2) Lance Armstrong (Astana) 0:01:37 3) Bradley Wiggins (Garmin - Slipstream) 0:01:46 4) Andreas Klöden (Astana) 0:02:17 5) Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 0:02:26 6) Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale) 0:02:30 7) Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 0:02:51 8) Tony Martin (Team Columbia - HTC) 0:03:07 9) Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux) 0:03:09 10) Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 0:03:25
11) Carlos Sastre Candil (Cervelo TestTeam) 0:03:52 12) Christian Vande Velde (Garmin – Slipstream) 0:03:59 13) George Hincapie (Team Columbia - HTC) 0:04:05 14) Cadel Evans (Silence - Lotto) 0:04:27 59) David Millar (Garmin - Slipstream) 0:40:34
Plucked from the obscurity of his London commute back in the mid-Nineties to live in Bath and edit bike mags our man made the jump to the interweb back in 2006 as launch editor of a large cycling website somewhat confusingly named after a piece of navigational equipment. He came up with the idea for road.cc mainly to avoid being told what to do… Oh dear, issues there then. Tony tries to ride his bike every day and if he doesn't he gets grumpy, he likes carbon, but owns steel, and wants titanium. When not on his bike or eating cake Tony spends his time looking for new ways to annoy the road.cc team. He's remarkably good at it.