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.
>> Subscribe to Cycling Weekly this Autumn and save 35%. Enjoy the luxury of home delivery and never miss an issue <<
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
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 plan
Cavendish survives the first Tour mountain stage with ease
Wiggins, the Tour de France overall contender, has arrived
TOUR DE FRANCE 2009 PHOTOS
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