Following two days of relative stalemate in the Pyrenees, no one was quite expecting the fireworks we got today on what might have been a fairly innocuous Tour de France stage to Gap.
Comprising just one second category climb that summited with 11km to go, the stage nonetheless saw Alberto Contador go on the attack, Cadel Evans counter that move and Andy Schleck lose over a minute on these two rivals.
Up front the stage was won by Thor Hushovd who took his second individual stage victory in this year’s Tour from a three man sprint.
With Garmin-Cervelo team mate Ryder Hesjedal leading out the trio, Hushovd just had the considerable sprint power of fellow Norwegian stage winner Edvald Boasson Hagen to worry about.
But the Team Sky man helped Hushovd to his win by momentarily choosing to look at the ground just as Hushovd was launching himself up to speed from behind.
In taking the win, Hushovd, recorded his tenth (individual) Tour de France stage victory.
Favourites break the deadlock
It was the nine kilometre Col de Manse that set the scene for the impromptu showdown between the favourites.
Having been focussed on the break-up up the ten man lead group, the TV cameras suddenly shot back to the bunch as Condator fired himself off the front.
Although this initially caught his rivals napping, it was only a matter of seconds until Fabian Cancellara took to the front to pull team mates Frank and Andy Schleck back up to him, along with Cadel Evans.
Following the phoney war of the Pyrenees, it wouldn’t have been a surprise for that to be the end of matter. But refreshed from the Tour’s second rest day (and all that that might imply), Contador wasn’t going to let it rest there. After a brief sortie by team mate Benjamin Noval, he went once again.
With yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler and Andy Schleck quickly on him, and Evans dragging the rest of the contenders up, the Spaniard was forced into making a third attack. Ploughing away with Evans and Sanchez, this was the one that stuck.
Behind, Schleck led the rest of the favourites towards the top of the 1,268m summit. But it was the drop back to Gap (which the race had also passed through before the climb) where the really interesting action happened.
The same descent where Joseba Beloki fractured his pelvis in the 2003 Tour, but wetter, it saw Evans deftly manoeuvre himself clear of Contador and Sanchez while a clearly cautious Andy Schleck slipped behind the rest of the chasers.
At the line Evans had gained three seconds on Contador and Sanchez, who in turned had gained 18 seconds on a group containing Frank Schleck and Thomas Voeckler. Ivan Basso finished in a group 54 seconds down on Evans, while Andy Schleck was in the next huddle at 1-09.
Jose Rojas and Philippe Gilbert led in the Voeckler group for 14th and 15th place, stealing back three and two points respectively on Mark Cavendish in the green jersey race.
Anthony Roux crashed just in front of Voeckler as they chased down the descent, but was quickly back on his feet.
On Wednesday, the riders travel from Gap to Pinerolo for stage 17‘s 178km of undulating Alpine scenery. The 2011 Tour de France concludes in Paris on Sunday, July 24.
Tour de France 2011, stage 16: Saint Paul Trois Chateaux to Gap, 162.5km
1. Thor Hushovd (Nor) Garmin-Cervelo in 3-31-38
2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Team Sky at same time
3. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Cervelo at 2 sec
4. Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad at 38 sec
5. Mikhail Ignatiev (Rus) Katusha at 52 sec
6. Alan Perez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1-25
7. Jeremy Roy (Fra) FDJ at same time
8. Marco Marcato (Ita) Vacansoleil-DCM at 1-55
9. Dries Devenyns (Bel) Quick Step at same time
10. Andriy Grivko (Ukr) Astana at 1-58
Overall classification after stage 16
1. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Europcar in 69-00-56
2. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 1-45
3. Frank Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek at 1-49
4. Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard-Trek at 3-03
5. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3-26
6. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Sungard at 3-42
7. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 3-49
8. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-ISD at 4-01
9. Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Cervelo at 6-04
10. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Team Sky at 7-55
Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez distance Thomas Voeckler and the Schleck brothers
Thomas Voeckler at the finish
Norwegian one-two: Thor Hushovd pips Edvald Boasson Hagen to the stage win
Thomas Voeckler still leads overall
Tour de France 2011: Related links
Tour de France 2011: Latest news
Tour de France 2011: Stage reports
Stage 15: Cavendish takes fourth stage win in 2011 Tour
Stage 14: Vanendert surprises the favourites as Voeckler holds on
Stage 13: World champ Hushovd takes well deserved solo Tour win
Stage 12: Sanchez wins at Luz Ardiden as Frank Schleck gains on other contenders
Stage 11: Cavendish moves into green after winning in Lavaur
Stage 10: Greipel beats Cavendish in Tour stage 10 sprint
Stage nine: Sanchez conquers day of crashes and climbs
Stage eight: Costa wins first mountain stage of 2011 Tour
Stage seven: Cavendish wins but Wiggins crashes out of Tour
Stage six: Boasson Hagen takes Sky’s first Tour de France win
Stage five: Cavendish wins in Cap Frehel
Stage four: Evans edges out Contador on the Mur-de-Bretagne
Stage three: Farrar sprints to first Tour victory in Redon
Stage two: Garmin win team time trial to put Hushovd in yellow
Stage one: Gilbert blasts to victory as Tour gets off to spectacular start
Tour de France 2011: Highlights videos
Tour de France 2011: Photo galleries
Stage 15 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Tour de France 2011: Live text coverage
Tour de France 2011 LIVE: CW’s text coverage schedule
Stage seven live text coverage
Tour de France 2011: Archive videos
Video: 2003 Centenary Tour
Video: Lance Armstrong retrospective
Video: Behind the scenes at the Tour
Video: Guerini’s 1999 stage win
Video: Thrills and spills at the Tour
Video: Armstrong in 1999
Video: The Indurain years
Video: Ladies of the Tour
Video: Best of bizarre
Tour de France 2011: Archive articles
1999 Tour de France stage two: Passage du Gois causes chaos
Tour de France 2011: Related links
Tour de France: The jerseys, what they are and what they mean
Potted history of the Tour de France
The closest Tours in history
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Wiggins
Tour de France 2010: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index