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
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