Xavier Tondo produced the most heroic ride of the season so far to win the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice on Saturday.
The Spaniard did it the hard way, on the most difficult stage of the race – a 220-kilometre leg from Peynier to Tourrettes-sur-Loup, which crossed eight categorised climbs.
Tondo had lost time and his chance of a top ten finish overall as he lost two-and-a-half minutes on Friday’s stage to Aix-en-Provence when he found himself following the wrong wheel at the wrong time and missed a major split in the bunch.
But he made amends with a gutsy performance that had every viewer on the edge of their seat. Tondo was one of 23 riders who got clear of the bunch after 40 kilometres. Among them were king of the mountains leader Amael Moinard (Cofidis), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack), Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) and Steve Cummings (Team Sky). The best placed overall was Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step).
The group’s lead never got more than two or three minutes all day, though, partly because Astana and Caisse d’Epargne took turns to pace the bunch, wary that Chavanel, who was lying 14th overall, just 1-27 down, might be poised to make a move on the yellow jersey.
The Col de Vence, the first-category climb which came with 35 kilometres to go, was always likely to be the decisive point of the race. This was where Tondo attacked his breakaway companions and was joined briefly by Cyril Gautier (BBOX Bouygues Telecom) and Cunego. Gautier was dropped first, then Cunego slipped back leaving Tondo alone with a long descent and then a tricky run-in to negotiate. He had a lead of 1-28 as he crossed the summit, with 31 kilometres to go.
Meanwhile, in the main group, which had been thinned down to just 30 or so riders, everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to take the initiative. Contador looked strong and, with the descent to come, there seemed little incentive for the likes of Samuel Sanchez or Alejandro Valverde to risk anything.
Near the top, Peter Sagan punctured but got back into the group. David Millar also had a flat and had to chase back.
Up ahead, though, was a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase. Cunego was caught leaving just one man out on front. Tondo poured everything he had out onto the road. One minute it looked as if he would certainly be caught, the next the odds swung back in his favour. He looked strong, then weaker, then strong again, while behind the bunch hummed and hawed and bringing it back together.
The gap came down to 40 seconds, then 25. As the big favourites hesitated, it was left to a small group of riders – Chavanel, Christophe Riblon, Thomas Voeckler and Jerome Coppel among them – to break clear.
Coming into the final kilometre, Tondo powered on and the chasers continued to look at one another.
Hardly anyone watching could have begrudged the Spaniard his moment of glory when he crossed the line. The big names may have sat and watched one another but it was, nevertheless, a fascinating day’s racing.
Valverde won the sprint for second place and took a time bonus that cut Contador’s overall lead to 14 seconds. With just one day remaining, the riders queuing up behind Contador know they have to attack him.
Sunday’s final stage starts and finishes in Nice. The 119-kilometre route goes over three first-category climbs, the Col de la Porte, La Turbie and the famous Col d’Eze, offering plenty of opportunities for those who still feel they can unseat Contador to have a go.
Stage six: Peynier – Tourrettes-sur-Loup, 220km
1. Xavier Tondo (Spa) Cervélo in 5hr 01min 39sec
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 5sec
3. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas
4. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
5. Joaquin Rodriquez (Spa) Katusha
6. Leonardo Duque (Col) Cofidis
7. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne
8. Christophe Riblon (Fra) AG2R
9. Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis
10. Daniele Righi (Ita) Lampre at same time
25. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Transitions at same time
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana in 25hr 43min 24sec
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 14sec
3. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 25sec
4. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 26ec
5. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 29sec
6. Jens Voigt (Ger) Saxo Bank at 34sec
7. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 36sec
8. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas at 38sec
9. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Transitions at 1-02
10. Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis at 1-06
Levi Leipheimer (right) with Steve Cummings (behind) and Damiano Cunego (left) in the break
Brit Steve Cummings at the helm of the break
Race leader Alberto Contador is followed by Alejandro Valverde
Xavier Tondo’s massive solo effort
Xavier Tondo’s effort paid off with the stage win
Paris-Nice 2010: Stage reports
Paris-Nice 2010: Photo galleries