The pendulum of power swung back in Alberto Contador’s direction at Arcalis, as he wrested control of the Astana team from Lance Armstrong at the end of the first mountain stage of the Tour de France.
Attacking in the closing kilometres with the sort of power and pace that suggested he’d ridden the long road from Barcelona with all the tension of a coiled spring, Contador gained 21 seconds over the other favourites in the Tour de France.
The Spaniard appeared to be smiling to himself as he approached the finish line and although he missed taking the yellow jersey by just seven seconds, he will have been delighted to leapfrog Armstrong in the overall standings.
It worked out perfectly for Contador. Ag2r’s Rinaldo Nocentini took the yellow jersey, sparing Astana the job of defending it, but Contador now leads Armstrong by two seconds.
That may be a very, very slender margin, but the decisive nature of his attack and the fact he is back in front of his team-mate and chief rival for the first time since Sunday, gives him the upper hand.
Whether Armstrong planned to attack, as some close to him suggested he would, will not now be known. But it must be assumed that the reason he did not attack was because he couldn’t.
It was very unlike the Armstrong of old. Certainly this was not the show of defiant strength of Sestriere in 1999 or Hautacam in 2000, or any of the other times he stamped his authority all over his race.
Armstrong is only two seconds behind Contador, but on the road, the Spaniard showed who was boss. And Armstrong’s anger at the finish, and his immediate reaction, showed that Contador’s attack was not the plan. However, he’ll have to live with it. The question is whether it provokes a response in the Pyrenees.
Meanwhile, another couple of riders were knocked out of the equation. Roman Kreuziger, fancied by many to be a dark horse for the podium, faltered, losing a minute to Armstrong. His Liquigas team-mates Vincenzo Nibali and Franco Pellizotti also failed to stay with the main group. However, there was a day of respite for the beleagered Russian Denis Menchov. The Giro d’Italia champion managed to keep up with Armstrong, Evans et al.
HOW THE STAGE ALTERED THE OVERALL PICTURE
GAINING TIME ON ARMSTRONG
Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R)
Not a serious contender for the Tour but a dangerous lurker who could not be in the top ten overall. Gained three minutes on Contador, 3-21 on the rest, and is a good enough climber to stay in yellow through the Pyrenees, despite his slender lead
Alberto Contador (Astana)
Gained 21 seconds over Armstrong
IN THE LANCE ARMSTRONG GROUP
Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto)
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Bradley Wiggins (Garmin)
Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Levi Leipheimer (Astana)
Tony Martin (Columbia)
Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
Carlos Sastre (Cervelo)
Vladimir Karpets (Katusha)
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin)
LOSING GROUND TO ARMSTRONG AND THE OTHER FAVOURITES
Lost 10 seconds
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)
Lost 23 seconds
Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas)
Andreas Klöden (Astana)
lost 44 seconds
Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne)
Maxime Monfort (Columbia)
lost 52 seconds
Kim Kirchen (Columbia)
Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas)
Linus Gerdemann (Milram)
Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne)
Michael Rogers (Columbia-HTC) – bandaged up after Thursday’s crash