GAP, FRANCE // Alberto Contador sent a warning to his rivals with repeated attacks in the 16th stage of the Tour de France yesterday.
Two days before a gruelling stage to the Col du Galibier, the three-times Tour champion attacked the peloton in the category-two Col de Manse with only Australia's Cadel Evans and Spain's Samuel Sanchez able to follow his pace.
Thor Hushovd, the world champion, won a Norwegian battle with Edvald Boasson-Hagen to secure his second individual stage win of the race, while the contenders for overall victory became involved in an unexpected dress rehearsal before three gruelling stages in the Alps.
Contador launched hostilities with 15 kilometres to go in the 162.5-km trek and each of his four attacks produced a clue to the questions left unanswered after the Pyrenees.
"I'm glad. I had the impression the legs were doing better than in previous days and that's why on a day like this, I had to try my luck," Contador said.
Evans, the Australian former mountain biker, sped down the windswept Rochette descent towards Gap to finish four minutes and 23 seconds behind Hushovd.
Contador finished two seconds behind Evans alongside his compatriot Sanchez, who was true to his promise to help the defending champion when possible.
Behind them, panic struck. Thomas Voeckler, the yellow jersey holder, was the first to react to Contador's initial strike, but wasted vital strength in the process and lost 20 seconds to Evans.
In the overall standings, the Frenchman now leads the Australian by 1min 45secs, with Luxembourg's Frank Schleck down to third place, four seconds behind Evans.
Frank's brother, Andy, the Tour runner-up for the past two years, was the main casualty of the day in the Rochette descent.
Always fearful of the rain and uncomfortable going downhill, the younger Schleck lost 1:09 to Evans and 1:06 to Contador, who moved up a place to sixth, 3:42 behind Voeckler.
The Frenchman kept his yellow jersey but said he had been taken aback by the Spaniard's initiative.
"It's a little bit scary when Contador attacks," he said. "With the kick he has in the climbs, I probably should have let the others chase but it's not my style.
"We didn't expect him to attack today, rather in the next few days and I must admit I got stuck, but most of the others struggled too."
While Contador's gain was mostly psychological, Evans's profit was also mathematical.
The 2009 world champion still retains a lead of nearly two minutes over the Spaniard ahead of another tough 179-km ride to Pinerolo, including the demanding climb to the Italian ski resort of Sestriere.
"We had studied the course and we knew that this stage could be decisive. The Tour is decided everyday, there are no intermediate stages. We knew that something could happen in the Rochette descent because Cadel is a good downhiller," the Australian's BMC team director John Lelangue, said.
Bjarne Riis, Contador's Saxo Bank team manager, said the big battle in the Alps would probably be between his rider and Evans. "Alberto wanted to try something today. He felt good. When he attacked, I told him, go ahead, they're all exhausted," he said.