Alberto Contador has finally put his rivals in the Tour de France under the attack, and did so much earlier than many observers had expected. In stage 16 to Gap, the Saxo Bank Sungard leader took advantage of the stage's final climb, the category 2 Col de Manse, as a springboard to take back some of the time he lost in the Tour's first half.
"I'm happy because the gaps are greater than I had expected," the Spaniard said at the finish. "I wanted to attack and I didn't care about who was going to be on my wheel. I knew that someone could falter."
Euskaltel-Euskadi's Samuel Sanchez and Cadel Evans from BMC were able to follow Contador when he put in several jumps on the medium mountain above the town of Gap. The Schleck brothers, yellow jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) as well as other GC contenders finally gave in and rode to limit their losses.
In the end, Contador made up 18 seconds on Voeckler and Fränk Schleck (Leopard Trek), 51 seconds on Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and even 1:06 on Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek). "This result is nothing to be euphoric about, either," the Spaniard said. "The most important thing is that my legs respond better and this always motivates my team and myself. My rivals remain the same as yesterday."
Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis revealed that it had been the Spaniard's own decision to attack on this less challenging climb rather than wait for the higher mountains that are still to come in the final week of the Tour de France.
"It was him who said he wanted to try today," Riis told reporters. "It was his intention from the start. The race was hard all day, it was very fast and it surely hurt some riders.
"Alberto felt good. Navarro got him to the front and then he attacked and just continued..."
The rainy and cold conditions did not affect Contador, but the Schleck brothers and especially Andy who paid the highest price in the attack. "It was a good call by Contador," admitted Fränk Schleck at the finish. "He knows that we don't like bad weather and descents and assessed the situation well."
Moreover, the defending champion may have found a precious ally in his quest for lost time: Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez. "We are good friends and in the time trial, we are not superior to anyone else. In some moments, he can be a good ally. It's a pity that Samuel was a bit short today, otherwise the differences could have been greater," Contador added.