If there was any remaining doubt over who is the real patron in this Tour de France, Alberto Contador today stamped his authority all over the race, staking his claim for his second Tour title.
Looking resplendent in a yellow skinsuit and a yellow helmet, the Spaniard was fastest at three of the four intermediate time checks demonstrating that he is not only the world’s finest climber, but also one of the most rounded riders in the sport.
Topping Fabian Cancellara’s time by three seconds, on a course that looked tailor-made for the Swiss, Contador also put 43 seconds into his nearest rival for the general classification, Bradley Wiggins.
Dancing on the pedals as he crested the top of the Côte de Bluffy and gritting his teeth as he ground his way to the line, he looked every bit the Tour champion elect.
Whilst the top step of the podium looks increasingly secure, the battle for the next two steps rages on, setting up a potential classic on Saturday's stage to the summit of Mont Ventoux.
Andy Schleck, who rode so well in the mountains yesterday, put in an impressive performance to finish 21st on the stage, limiting his losses to Contador, but those behind narrowed the gap.
Meanwhile, Garmin’s Bradley Wiggins who looked as though he was out of contention for the podium after yesterday’s stage, jumped both Andreas Kloden and Frank Schleck on the general classification despite fading in the latter part of the stage.
The Briton now sits in fourth place, just 11 seconds behind Lance Armstrong in third place, making a Tour de France podium a real possibility. He has looked stronger than Armstrong on most of the climbs of this year's race. The American only beating Wiggins on yesterday's stage after sitting on him up the climb of La Colombiére and putting time in to him on the descent.
Frank Schleck lost 2-34 on Contador today as Lance Armstrong took his place on the podium, but the seven-time Tour-winner is showing real signs of fatigue.
Though the battle for the top step of the podium looks increasingly like it has been won, the tactical intrigue at Astana that has so dominated the headlines looks as though it could rear its head once again on the slopes of Mont Ventoux.
With Andreas Kloden and Lance Armstrong both conceivably able to finish on the podium, will Johan Bruyneel compromise Contador’s chances of a second win to ensure an Astana 1-2-3?
Stage 18 results, Annecy – Annecy, 40km
1. Alberto Contador (Astana) 48-31
2. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) 0-03
3. Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) 0-15
4. Gustav Larsson (Saxo Bank) 0-33
5. David Millar (Garmin) 0-41
6. Bradley Wiggins (Garmin) 0-43
7. Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne) 0-44
8. Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) 0-45
9. Andreas Kloden (Astana) 0-54
10. Dave Zabriskie (Garmin) 1-02
Overall classification after stage 18
1. Alberto Contador (Esp) Astana 73-15-39hrs
2. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 4-11 min
3. Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana at 5-25 min
4. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Garmin-Slipstream at 5-36 min
5. Andréas Klöden (Ger) Astana at 5-38 min
6. Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 5-59 min
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 7-15 min
8. Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin-Slipstream at 10-08 min
9. Mikel Astarloza (Esp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 12-38 min
10. Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Française des Jeux at 12-41
Bradley Wiggins made up time on his rivals to move back up to fourth overall
David Millar put in a fantastic ride to come fifth
Fabian Cancellara lead the stage until Contador came through the finish line
Alberto Contador: unbeatable
TOUR DE FRANCE 2009 LINKS
Tour de France 2009 - the hub: Index to reports, photos, previews and more.
Stage 17: Schleck brothers overhaul Wiggins as Frank wins the stage
Stage 16: Astarloza snatches Alps stage win as contenders wind up the pace
Stage 15: Contador wins in Verbier as Tour explodes into life
Stage 14: Ivanov wins as Nocentini clings onto yellow
Stage 13: Haussler braves rain for victory in Colmar
Stage 12: Sorensen wins in Vittel as Cavendish goes for green
Stage 11: Cavendish takes fourth win to equal Hoban's record
Stage 10: Cavendish spoils Bastille Day party to take third stage win
Stage nine: Third French win as contenders content with ceasefire
stage eight: Sanchez wins from break as Tour favourites cancel each other out
Stage seven: Feillu wins at Arcalis, Nocentini takes yellow, Contador leap-frogs Lance
Stage six: Millar's brave bid denied on Barcelona hill as Hushovd triumphs
Stage five: Voeckler survives chase to win his first Tour stage
Stage four: Astana on top but Armstrong misses yellow by hundredths of a second
Live Tour de France stage four TTT coverage
Stage three: Cavendish wins second stage as Armstrong distances Contador
Stage two: Cavendish takes first sprint
Stage one: Cancellara wins opening time trial
LATEST TOUR NEWS
Tour de France 2009 News Index>>
Astana to split after Tour
Voigt crashes out of Tour
Armstrong fighting hard for Tour podium place
Wiggins gets closer to Tour podium place
Who's won what so far in the Tour de France
How the Tour favourite are doing (Rest day 2)
Wiggins climbs to third in Tour overall
Armstrong concedes he can't win the 2009 Tour
Tom Boonen quits the Tour de France
Stage 15 analysis: Is the Tour now over?
Columbia criticise Garmin for chasing Hincapie
Cavendish reveals he is going for green
Tour comment: The suspense is killing us
Analysis: Why Cavendish is one of the modern greats
Radio ban over-turned for Friday's Tour stage
Arvesen out of Tour with fractured collarbone
Tour analysis: Why the go slow did cycling no favours on Bastille Day
Cavendish's odd stage 10 finish celebration explained
No radios today, but experiment could be a one-off
Tour audio: Mark Cavendish after stage 10
Contador brushes aside talk of Armstrong conflict
Cavendish odds-on favourite for Bastille Day victory
The Tour de France Comment: Monday, July 13
How the favourites are doing (first rest day)
Wiggins stays with leaders at Tour
Armstrong: 'If Contador wins, I'll be second'
Wiggins 'on cloud nine' at Tour de France
Armstrong says Contador attack wasn't in the planCavendish survives the first Tour mountain stage with ease
Wiggins, the Tour de France overall contender, has arrived
Garmin-Slipstream's HQ before the Tour
David Zabriskie's time trial bike
Mark Cavendish on the Tour's team time trial
David Brailsford interview
Mark Cavendish on the Tour
Jonathan Vaughters on Bradley Wiggins' chances
TOUR DE FRANCE 2009 PHOTOS
Stage 16 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 15 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 14 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 13 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 12 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 11 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 10 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage nine photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage eight photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage seven photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage six photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage five photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage four TTT photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage three photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage two photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage one photo gallery by Andy Jones
Stage one photo gallery by Graham Watson
Team presentation by Andy Jones
Team presentation by Graham Watson
Tour de France 2009 - the hub
Tour de France 2009: Who's riding
Tour de France 2009: Team guide
About the Tour de France
Tour de France 2009: Who will win?
Tour de France 2009 on TV: Eurosport and ITV4 schedules
Big names missing from 2009 Tour de France
Tour de France anti-doping measures explained
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish
Cycling Weekly's rider profiles
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