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There were few surprises on La Montagne de Lure. Alberto Contador looked like a coiled spring all day, but exercised a modicum of patience, reserving his final attack until six kilometres from the line.
But from there, it was one-way traffic, as the lively climber opened up the gap. By the finish, the Spanish climber had gained 1-50 on race leader Sylvain Chavanel, and all but guaranteed overall victory on the Promenade des Anglais on Sunday.
La Montagne de Lure wasn?t ideally suited to the pure climbers, as it was more a test of power. However, Contador?s high-cadence style, and lengthy spells spent out of the saddle, paid greater dividends than big gear merchants.
There was nothing subtle or innovative about it, Contador?s ride was a simple show of strength that no one else in the race could hope to live with. The question of whether there is anyone in the world who can put him in difficulty on the climbs won?t be answered definitively until later in the year, but it makes you wonder what Contador will do on the harsher slopes of Mont Ventoux in July.
Ventoux was visible on the horizon for much of the day, first looming ahead of the riders, then peering over their shoulders, as if assessing the form while reminding them what awaits them this summer.
Contador?s supremacy, and the fact that his biggest rival in the Tour de France may come from his own team-mate, Lance Armstrong, threatens to render July?s event a formality.
And the fact that no one can even follow him, let alone put him in difficulty, means that the mountain stages, traditionally the most eagerly awaited, are in danger of losing their magnetic appeal.
Astana?s tactics are the same as Discovery Channel and US Postal Service before them. In this radio-controlled era there is very little imaginative about Johan Bruyneel?s approach. So often lauded as a tactical genius, the plan is simple. They set a high pace on the flat, then Yaroslav Popovych kept the pressure on as they reached the bottom of the final 16-kilometre climb and the lead group began to shred.
Unlike the flatter stages early in the week, when innovative tactics and crosswinds made for exciting, unpredictable racing, this mountain stage was a procession, devoid of suspense, although impressive, if that?s your kind of thing.
Contador now leads by 1-13, with two hilly stages to come. Unless the unthinkable happens, the race is in the bag, and as far as the Tour de France is concerned, all bets must surely be suspended.
Everyone was waiting for Contador to attack, but at least Saxo Bank tried to do something to upset the applecart. Jens Voigt attacked with just over 10 kilometres to go, and shortly afterwards Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank), placed second overall, was dropped from the rapidly-thinning front group, led by Popovych (Astana).
The first big casualty was last year?s runner-up Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R), who went backwards quickly. Garate was the big surprise. He eventually trailed in more than five minutes behind Contador, in a group which also contained Britain?s David Millar.
With 8.5km to go Vladimir Efimkin of AG2R attacked, provoking another reaction, which finally brought Contador out of the shadows.
Inside eight kilometres to go and Contador decided he?d waited long enough and began to apply the pressure. Frank Schleck, the champion of Luxembourg, went with him. They caught and passed Voigt, but Efimkin managed to hang in there.
Contador went solo with six kilometres to go, powering away from Schleck and Efimkin without even getting out of the saddle.
Stage five: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux ? La Montagne de Lure, 182.5km
1 Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana
2 Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 58sec
3 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d?Epargne same time
4 Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto at 1-27
5 David Moncoutie (Fra) Cofidis same time
6 Jens Voigt (Ger) Saxo Bank at 1-29
7 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1-31
8 Jonathan Hivert (Fra) Skil-Shimano at 1-34
9 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Agritubel at 1-44
10 Chris Anker Sorensen (Den) Saxo Bank at 1-46
13 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick Step at 1-50
33 David Millar (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 5-06
1 Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana
2 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d?Epargne at 1-13
3 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quick Step at 1-24
4 Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 1-38
5 Kevin Seeldrayers (Bel) Quick Step at 2-01
6 Jens Voigt (Ger) Saxo Bank at 2-06
7 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 2-14
8 Jonathan Hivert (Fra) Skil-Shimano at 2-29
9 Antonio Colom (Spa) Katusha at 2-35
10 Yury Trofimov (Rus) Bbox Bouygues Telecom at 3-09
17 David Millar (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 5-30
Alberto Contador wins decisive stage six, and gets back in the race lead
Stage five: Roy takes solo win, Chavanel still leads
Stage four: Vande Velde takes trong lone win for Garmin
Stage three: Chavanel sweeps into power
Stage two: Haussler blasts to stage two win
Stage one (prologue): Contador wins, Wiggins second
Martin pulls out of Paris-Nice
Prologue analysis: Contador the unstoppable?
The Big Preview: Paris-Nice 2009
Fleeman to ride Paris-Nice
Why Paris-Nice 2008 was simply a great race
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