Every pedal stroke Alberto Contador rode without company towards the stunning Swiss alpine finish of Verbier had a meaning. From the exact moment he attacked - 5.7 kilometres from the end of Sunday's 207.5-km 15th stage - to the time he crossed the line victorious, five hours, three minutes and 58 seconds after leaving Pontarlier, the 2007 Tour champion was making a series of statements.
One of those was to say that when he attacks on a climb, no one can go with him. We already learned that before on this Tour, on the seventh leg to Andorra Arcalis. Another is that he's the leader of Astana, no questions asked. And another is while he may appear nervous in his surroundings, polemics do not bother him on the bike.
There are many more meanings behind those majestic strokes of the pedals we witnessed Sunday. But the most important was Contador's last as he fired his imaginary pistol: I am the leader of the 2009 Tour de France, I will remain so, and if you try to dethrone me, I'll shoot you down.
"Today was a real liberation for me after all the pressure. I needed this one today," said Contador, the 26-year-old Spaniard finishing 43 seconds ahead of Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) and 1:03 in front of Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas).
"Last night, my only dream was to have good legs. Even though I knew I was in good condition, I always have small doubts in my mind about my rivals. It's certainly not over - not over at all - but it's a nice step in the right direction. The toughest is still to come; there are many strong riders, and there's a long way to go," he said.
Three seconds behind the Italian Nibali, Schleck's older brother Fränk led home a group of three including Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream) and Carlos Sastre (Cérvelo TestTeam) to place fourth. Runner-up for the past two years, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) was next, 1:26 down in seventh place, followed by the Astana duo of Andréas Klöden and Lance Armstrong, 1:29 and 1:35 behind, and in tenth place was Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia-HTC), 1:55 behind Contador.
"I'm really happy to have the maillot jaune. Not because I beat Lance Armstrong, but because I beat all my rivals," Contador said, asked what it's like to beat his former idol-turned-teammate, and to now have Armstrong work for him. "It's an honour to have Lance Armstrong work for me. He's a great professional, and now, everyone in the team has to work for one goal."
A new, more solid top 10
Just under nine kilometres in length with an average gradient of 7.5 percent, the 1,468-metre, Cat.1 ascent to Verbier was not particularly long, steep, or high. Nevertheless, it has established a new pecking order at the 96th edition of La Grande Boucle with Contador leading the charge, 1:37 ahead of the next-best rider - seven-time Tour champion, Armstrong.
"Well, it was hard, everybody was at their limit," said Armstrong. "I definitely did suffer. It was very, very hard. I don't have the acceleration that Alberto or Andy [Schleck] has. I'm proud of him [Contador]; he rode great."
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the guy 11 seconds behind the Texan on the overall classification, Bradley Wiggins of Garmin-Slipstream. From Olympic glory in the individual and team pursuit at the Beijing Olympics 10 months ago - heavily specialised disciplines lasting just four kilometres - to a change in focus, mentality and physical prowess in order to take on the world's most arduous bike race, this year 3,459.5 kilometres long, the 29-year-old Brit sporting a pair of lamb-chop sideburns has undergone a brilliant transformation. Whether he can continue in this bold way, unafraid to attack his more established Grand Tour peers - or perhaps improve further still - we'll need another few mountains to find out.
"I know I am great shape, I just keep thinking that in my head," said Wiggins.
"Everyone keeps talking to me about what's ahead, but that does not help my concentration. I just go day-by-day. I have trained for this mentally as well as physically. How can you think three days ahead when you got two days before that? That is how you crack and cock things up," he said.
Klöden, fourth on the classement general, behaved on Sunday like Armstrong's lieutenant faithful. If Contador keeps going away on his own like he did to Verbier, it will be a role he'll need to get used to, in order to guarantee the American a place on the Paris podium in his comeback year. Fifth on GC at 2:26, Andy Schleck proved his mettle as the second-best climber so far in this Tour, the only rider to really go after Contador when he attacked. But Schleck's clearly not here for fifth - he came to win.
"He [Contador] will have some pressure in the next days and we will not give up until we are in Paris. It won't be a piece of cake for him," Schleck said. "Remember, he had the jersey in Paris-Nice and he lost it; the race will not be over until the Champs Élysées."
Others still within earshot
Sixth to tenth on the overall classification - previous race leader Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Tony Martin (Team Columbia-HTC), Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux) and Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) - is between 2:30 and 3:25 behind Contador. Not at impossible odds of improving, but still, difficult to make up.
"In the last three kilometres, I used up every last bit of strength in my body and it worked out well in the end. I don't know what to make of it - I was going flat out and could not think. But I'm really happy because I have the legs and the condition," said Nibali, third on the stage and seventh overall.
Other names worth mentioning are: Sastre, 11th at 3:52; Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream), 12th at 3:59; Evans, 14th at 4:27; Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), 16th at 4:40; Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia-HTC), 17th at 5:05; Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne), 18th at 5:27; Linus Gerdemann (Team Milram), 24th at 8:20; and Giro d'Italia champion Denis Menchov (Rabobank), 29th at 11:23.
It was just one degree Celsius for every hour of the day at the midday start in Pontarlier, a countryside town set in the heart of vast fir tree forest land. Before the peloton rolled out for its 207.5-kilometre journey to Verbier, Quick Step's Tom Boonen choosing not to start, a minute's silence was observed for the 61-year-old woman who died after colliding with a police motorbike during Saturday's 14th stage to Besançon.
Some forty kilometres in, David Moncoutié (Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne) took a flyer out of the peloton, got caught, and when Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) countered, the Frenchman and six others joined in for the ride, the names being: Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence-Lotto), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Fabian Cancellara (Team Saxo Bank), David Arroyo and José Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Pierrick Fedrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom).
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Slipstream), Christophe Kern and Amael Moinard (Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne) and Simon Spilak (Lampre-NGC) were the next four to bridge to make another even dozen, the same quantity of names as the day before. That was until Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream) and Tony Martin (Team Columbia-HTC) were next to make the transition, with 15 now in front.
Twenty-five kilometres later, Hesjedal attacked the break and after cresting the Côte de Prevonloup (km. 74) solo, the Canadian chose to sit up. When he was caught, only eight of his original companions joined him, Rabobank's Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) the new addition to make a 10-man lead group. Of the 10, Astarloza was the best-placed on GC, at the start of the day 16th on the classement general and 3:02 behind overnight leader Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale).
With 85 kilometres covered, 3:10 was the gap between break and bunch as Astarloza became the maillot jaune virtuel, Armstrong having now removed his leg warmers a short time ago as Astana grew in numbers at the peloton's fore. Sixteenth overall at the start of the day, Vladimir Efimkin's abandon at the feed zone (km. 99.5) was a surprise, the Russian's crash a few days earlier obviously taken its toll.
At the foot of the day's penultimate climb, the Col des Mosses, the escape's advantage measured 3:37 after 123 kilometres, although their lead at one stage topped the four-and-a-half minute mark. The 13.8-kilometre ascent that averaged just four percent, last used in 2000 when Italian Massimiliano Lelli led over the 1,445-metre summit, proved a small obstacle for the lead group as Astarloza passed its zenith 3:23 ahead of the Astana/Garmin-Slipstream-led peloton.
Fifty kilometres out, having ridden past the UCI headquarters in Aigle, the leading 10 had improved their advantage, now 4:15 ahead. Back in the peloton, the electric-green jerseys of Liquigas had gathered to the fore for Kreuziger and Nibali, Astana also still there, eventually withering away the break's lead to 2:40 with 21 kilometres left to race. And in an attempt to stop the inevitable, Lampre's Spilak took flight.
Chased later by Astarloza of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Spilak began the 8.8-kilometre climb to Verbier with a 44-second lead to the Spaniard, the remains of the break a further 55 seconds back, and the peloton no more than a minute-and-a-half behind. Six kilometres from the line Andy Schleck looked ready to pounce, but Contador's acceleration 300 metres later beat him to it, and by the end, beat everyone else, never seen again. The younger Schleck was the only rider to try and bridge to Contador, but failed by 43 seconds.
"I had planned to attack four to five kilometres from the finish," said Contador, "but Saxo Bank worked really hard, so I decided to attack earlier because there was only four or five riders left in the group."
Best of the next chase group of four was Nibali, which also included Fränk Schleck, Wiggins and Sastre, the latter doing well to chase back on after he and Nocentini were dropped. Only four other riders finished within two minutes of Contador on the climb to Verbier: Evans, Klöden, Armstrong and Kirchen.
For images of stage 15 click here