Alberto Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff team took the fight to Chris Froome (Sky) early in stage 18 in a bid to shed him of teammates and they tried to put him under pressure on the sinuous descent of the Col de Sarenne, but the final haul to Alpe d'Huez delivered an ineluctable truth – the Spaniard does not have the legs to win the 2013 Tour de France.
When the biggest engines in the race began to open their throttles at the base of Alpe d'Huez, Contador found that he had run out of gas. The dancing figure of yesteryear was again replaced by the leaden-legged one who had already suffered so on Ax 3 Domaines and Mont Ventoux, and he was unable to follow when Froome, Richie Porte (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) motored out of sight a little over 9 kilometres from the summit.
"I had a very bad day, at least I've saved my position and hopefully now I can recover," Contador said. "From the very beginning, my legs were feeling a bit hard and in the end I suffered a bit with dehydration. The team was very good but once the attacks started I preferred to go at my own pace because I knew the climb was long. At the end, I did a time that was more or less acceptable for the sensations I had."
It took Contador 41:52 to climb Alpe d'Huez and he crossed the line two minutes down on Rodriguez and Quintana and a little over a minute behind Froome and Porte. While he remains second on general classification, he now trails Froome by 5:11 and has just 21 seconds in hand over Quintana.
Throughout his career, Contador has found various ways to retrieve losing positions and that meant that few have been willing to write him off entirely even after his emphatic defeats on every summit finish to date. After all, he claimed the 2008 Giro d'Italia though short of condition after his team was invited at a week's notice, managed to claw his way back to take a since-expunged Tour victory ahead of Andy Schleck in 2010 and – most pertinently – won last year's Vuelta a España in spite of being arguably only the third strongest man in the race.
Contador's resilient showing in Wednesday's time trial provided further sustenance to his hopes of pulling off another Houdini act at this Tour in spite of his deficit of 4:14 to Froome before stage 18 and its novel double ascent of Alpe d'Huez began. Ultimately, however, Saxo-Tinkoff's early attacking and Contador and Kreuziger's escape on the hair-raising descent of the Sarenne proved to be little more than smoke and mirrors.
"I wouldn't say it was an attack, it was only to go ahead of the group, because we went calmly and without taking any risks," Contador said of the move that saw him gain 20 seconds on Froome before relenting in the valley before the final climb. "Yes, we took some time, but we knew we needed more people with us and nobody came, so the smartest thing was to stop and wait for the group because Movistar organized the chase behind."
Struggling on Alpe d'Huez
Contador's grimace on Alpe d'Huez was a distant cry from the inscrutable mask of the Pistolero of 2009, and his travails meant that he missed the opportunity to put genuine pressure on Froome when the maillot jaune suffered his first défaillance of this race in the closing kilometres of the climb.
"I didn't see it so I can't say much, but what caught my attention is that he attacked with 12 kilometres to go to the finish. I don't know what the sense was in attacking there, but I'm quite surprised that he was dropped by Quintana and Joaquim [Rodriguez]," Contador said.
On crossing the line, Contador rode straight into a wall of television cameras and reporters, but was quickly ushered away by his press officer Jacinto Vidarte, and he eventually found some refuge in the tent past the finish area where commissaires were carefully weighing bikes. (Incidentally, Contador opted to make a bike change shortly before the second ascent of Alpe d'Huez in spite of Movistar's fierce pace-making).
As he sat composing his thoughts, briefly protected from the madding crowds outside, Contador must surely have realised that his already faint chances of victory are fading ever more quickly, but he looked to strike a defiant note when he spoke at the Saxo-Tinkoff hotel later on Thursday evening.
"Tomorrow is a tough stage and we have to see how the weather is," Contador said. "It has the Glandon and Madeleine at the beginning so it will be really hard and we'll have to see how it goes. There's a hard summit finish on Saturday, too. Today was a good opportunity, but my legs didn't respond."