By Pierre Serisier
The Tour de France has a strong Spanish accent with four Iberians in the top ten of the overall standings as the race leaves the Alps.
On Tuesday, Alejandro Valverde emerged as a serious candidate for victory when he ended the 159.5-km ninth stage in second place behind Colombia's Juan Mauricio Soler.
The Caisse d'Epargne rider is within reach of yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, two minutes 35 seconds behind him. Valverde, second overall, leads compatriot Iban Mayo by four seconds.
Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador was one of the most aggressive riders of the stage, keeping Soler's pace during most of the ascent of the out-of-category Col du Galibier.
The 24-year-old Contador, who won the Paris-Nice stage race earlier this year, took the white jersey for the best young rider off German Linus Gerdemann's shoulder.
"I don't want to think of the yellow jersey because I don't want to be disappointed," said Contador, who lies fifth overall, 33 seconds adrift of Valverde.
"I just want to focus on the white jersey because I came here to gain experience. It's a shame I have not been able to beat the favourites but there is still one week remaining." A climber, Contador will be a potential threat to everyone when the peloton reaches the Pyrenees for three stages.
Another Spaniard, Carlos Sastre, is seventh overall. The CSC rider has the edge over team mate Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, who finished Tuesday's stage 02'45" behind the favourites' group. "We have a plan and we stick to it. Our goal is to bring Carlos to the podium in Paris," said CSC team manager Alain Gallopin.