By Jon Brand
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 20, 2009
VERBIER, Switzerland, July 19 -- The Tour de France moved into the Swiss Alps on Sunday, and with it came the usual promise of spectacle.
After a week of relatively flat stages, showcasing sprint finishes and long breakaways by non-contenders, the mention of mountain battles was enough to make even the veteran Lance Armstrong excited.
But under stunningly blue skies, a few light clouds and snowcapped peaks, it was Alberto Contador, Armstrong's Astana teammate, who instantly delivered.
With 5.6 kilometers left of the 207.5-km ride on a tough uphill climb into Verbier, the Spaniard accelerated away from a breakaway group filled with general classification contenders to claim Stage 15 decisively and move into the yellow jersey.
In his wake were a talented bunch, including Armstrong and Astana teammate Andréas Klöden, as well as Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck and Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins.
But despite their talent, Contador could not be caught.
He finished the stage in 5 hours 3 minutes 58 seconds. That time was 43 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Schleck, a 24-year-old Luxembourger considered one of the sport's new stars.
"In the end I managed to do what I wanted to make the difference," said Contador, winner of the 2007 Tour. "If I wanted to leave my rivals behind me in the standings, that was the only way I could do it."
Armstrong, who didn't respond to Contador's mountain attack for the second time this Tour, rode across the finish line 1:35 behind his 26-year-old teammate.
The Texan is now second in the overall classification, 1:37 back of Contador.
"He was the best in the race," Armstrong told reporters at the finish line. "We were all at the limit, and he was able to accelerate again."
Armstrong also reemphasized his support for Contador, which had been debated ad nauseam for the last two weeks.
"Now it's clear that we have the strongest rider in the race, and this is a team sport -- none of us, Andreas [Klöden] or myself can start thinking about ourselves; we have to think about the team," he said.
Not only did the stage provide answers about Armstrong and Contador's relationship, it also addressed questions of Astana's strength following the loss of American Levi Leipheimer last Friday.
Leipheimer was forced to abandon the race after suffering a fractured right wrist just a few kilometers from the stage 12 finish in Vittel. He was in fourth place at the time and would have provided vital support in the mountains.
On Friday, Armstrong called Leipheimer's departure a "serious blow to our team," and team sport director Johan Bruyneel said "strategically it makes us weaker."
It didn't seem to matter much on Sunday.
The Kazahkstan-based powerhouse kept rolling and currently has three riders in the overall top five -- Contador, Armstrong and Klöden of Germany, who is fourth, 2:17 off the pace.
"Overall, if we play it really smart, we can have three guys in the top five and the guy who wins" the Tour, Armstrong said of the team's goals. "So that's a special opportunity."
There's still a long way to go, however.
After Monday's rest day, the last of the Tour, the next test is Tuesday's border-hopping stage to Bourg-Saint-Maurice. It will start in Switzerland, move through Italy and finish in France.
But all eyes are on Thursday's 40.5 km time trial in Annecy, a crucial step in determining the overall classification, and on Saturday's penultimate finish at Mont Ventoux.
Race officials are hoping the historic mountain climb, which has never been placed this late in a Tour, will host an epic battle for the yellow jersey.
Which is why Contador is appreciating his lead, but won't let off the gas.
"The Tour's a long way from finishing yet, and I can't say I've won it yet," he said. "This is a big step, though, in the right direction."