At last the Tour de France has come to life. After another 199km of a peloton riding together, the riders treated the world to eight kilometres of the most exciting bike racing seen in years.
Alberto Contador stamped his authority on the race with a devastating attack with 5.6km to go but behind him a hundred other stories were unfolding. Briton Bradley Wiggins was doing the ride of his life to put himself within reach of the podium, while Lance Armstrong and Andreas Klöden struggled on, riding at first together, chasing Contador, and then for themselves.
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It had to happen. There has been so much speculation and there are so many riders who needed to make a move and gain time that the climb to Verbier, never used before in the race, was always set to kick this Tour into life.
Contador’s devastating win puts him in the race lead and confirms once and for all that he is Astana’s out and out leader – even if Armstrong still didn’t want to accept it on the climb.
Contador had taken his ear piece out – obviously today he was riding to his own plan. Had he left it in he might have learned that behind him Andreas Klöden was setting the pace on the front of a small group containing Armstrong and his other rivals. Astana might be chock full of race favourites, but they are not a unified team.
The Spaniard needed just one attack to escape the group of favourites. Only Andy Schleck could respond, but he wasn’t quick enough to get on Contador’s wheel and spent the rest of the stage chasing his shadow. Behind him the chase instantly saw the leading group reduced to no more than six or seven riders as the likes of Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans were initially dropped.
Klöden’s pace then stalled and Wiggins attacked. The Briton is amazing the cycling world with his performance at this year’s Tour, and today he confirmed that the podium in Paris is a real possibility.
His move didn’t succeed but he was later able to follow Vincenzo Nibali and Frank Schleck as they went up the road. By this time both Sastre and Evans had fought thier way back up, only for both of them to be put in trouble in the final kilometres as Wiggins set the pace. It was amazing to witness.
Just behind, Armstrong was visibly beginning to suffer. Left with just Klöden for company, the American had that familiar look on his face, only this time it wasn’t because he was riding away from the rest of the field.
But don’t write the seven-time winner off just yet. His ride was enough to move him up to second overall and there’s only one more summit finish to come, and there’s still Thursday’s time trial. He may not have looked great today, but he still moved up the general classification.
Wiggins eventually finished fifth, as Nibali and Schleck jumped away in the steep final metres, moving himself up to third overall, 1-46 minutes behind Contador. The question is, can he stay there?
There are three mountain stages to come, although only Saturday’s to Mont Ventoux is a summit finish. Having said that, if Wiggins continues to climb like this, the two stages to Bourg Saint-Maurice and Le Grand Bornand will hold no fear for him.
Tomorrow is rest day, and all the riders will be readying themselves for a hard final week.
Stage 15: Pontarlier – Verbier 207.5km
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana in 5-03-58
2. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 43 seconds
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at at 1-03 minutes
4. Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 1-06 minutes
5. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 1-06 minutes
6. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo Test Team at 1-06 minutes
7. Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence Lotto at 1-26 minutes
8. Andréas Klöden (Ger) Astana at 1-29 minutes
9. Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana at 1-35 minutes
10. Kim Kirchen (Lux) Columbia HTC at 1-55 minutes
Overall classification after stage 15
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana in 63-17-56hrs
2. Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana at 1-37
3. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Garmin-Slipstream at 1-46
4. Andréas Klöden (Ger) Astana at 2-17
5. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 2-26
6. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) Ag2r La Mondiale at 2-30
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 2-51
8. Tony Martin (Ger) Columbia HTC at 3-07
9. Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Française des Jeux at 3-09
10. Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 3-25
59. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Slipstream at 40-34
64. Charly Wegelius (GB) Silence-Lotto at 41-46
139. Mark Cavendish (GB) Columbia-HTC at 1-49-01
Lance Armstrong, ninth on the stage and up to second overall
Bradley Wiggins didn’t follow wheels on Verbier, he set the pace for the chasers and came fifth
Kerpow – an explosive attack by Contador left the other contenders reeling
Contador enjoys his first moment in the yellow jersey at the 2009 Tour de France
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