Up until 500 metres from the summit of the Peyresourde during stage 12 at the Tour de France, French TV commentators had been praising Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) for putting in an unexpectedly consistent performance. The Spanish veteran has crashed three times in the Tour this year and lost nearly five minutes in the Jura stage, where he fell twice, the first very heavily.
However, on the Port de Bales, he even made a brief attack, probably the only one to remotely trouble Chris Froome (Team Sky) before the Briton suddenly cracked on the Peyragudes.
But then suddenly as Team Sky accelerated towards the summit of the Peyresourde, the double Tour winner sat up, clearly suffering badly, and after an agonisingly slow ascent to Peyragudes he crossed the line in 14th place, his face almost black from the effort. Even Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who had been dropped far earlier on the second last climb, managed to sprint past Contador in the finale.
Contador moves up the overall classification from 12th to 11th, but he has dropped to over seven minutes down. If there had been a flicker of hope that he might have regrouped and battled on for a GC placing, it has now gone out for good.
"It's been a tough day," Contador said later. "I tried it as best I could but I had a very tough time following the pace. You might call that normal, as this morning I was really suffering, and it's been a very tough stage because of the altitude gain and the huge number of kilometres.
"But now all I can think of is a stage win. The GC is impossible. It's not just a question of time, I'm not in great shape physically. I only just got through this stage. I was running on fumes."
Contador's naturally rebellious spirit was responsible for his brief attempt at an attack on the Bales, but he said his aim to shake Sky's control of the race had only partly worked.
"I wanted to shake the tree a bit, they had eight riders," he commented. On the plus side, he felt better than he had done this morning, "when I felt terrible."
Froome's prediction that Contador might plan a long distance attack on stage 13 may be less likely now, but the Spaniard admitted that the developments on GC were interesting.
"Aru's leadership will give the whole thing a very different feel, but in any case I'll be watching the GC battle 'from the barriers'," he said - the latter being an image taken from bullfighting, meaning he will be in the bullring, but, in terms of the GC at least, amongst the spectators, not at the centre of the fight.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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