Alberto Contador (Astana) was beaten by compatriot Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) on the runway above Mende but he gained ten precious seconds on Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank). More importantly he landed a physical and psychological body blow by proving that he could accelerate away from Schleck on the steep climb to the finish.
Contador finished second behind Rodriguez, while Schleck came home in fifth place behind the ever-impressive Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and in the same time as Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank). The other overall contenders were all further back.
Contador is now just 31 seconds behind Schleck as the pressure grows and the Pyrenees loom in the distance.
"It's an important psychological blow. It's good to see your body responding like that after 210km of racing," said Contador, who won in Mende at Paris-Nice in both 2007 and this year.
"This hill really suits me. My legs felt good but I didn't know whether to go for it or not. I was on Andy's wheel and saw him looking weak for a moment and so decided to go for it. I thought I'd attack to see how he was. I managed to gain a few seconds. So it was a good end to the stage.
"It’s always good to get a gap of some kind. I thought I might gain more than 10 seconds. I felt it was up to me to take the attack to him today and that performance was very important today. It's a pity I couldn't cap it with the win."
Contador seemed to shake his head at Rodriguez just before the final corner, as if there was to be no gentleman's agreement about who would win the stage. Contador wanted it as much as Rodriguez but the little Katusha climber had the speed to win it anyway.
"It's always nice when a Spaniard wins, though it would have been better if it went to someone in our team," Contador admitted.
"Vino did a great job getting into the break. It was very important having him there. We didn't have to work on what was a very hot and difficult day. It was just a pity he couldn't stay away and win.
"I've got a good relationship with Joaquin and I'm very pleased about my performance looking to the Pyrenees, especially the sensations in my legs. Now the next thing is to recover in time for Sunday."
Sunday is the first of four stages in the Pyrenees, surely the scene for the final showdown in this Tour de France between Contador and Schleck. Contador is hoping the climb to Mende is an indication of what could happen on the 7.8km climb to the finish at Ax3 Domaines.
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.