Alberto Contador strikes hard in Tour de France Stage 12

Alberto Contador today shaved 10 seconds off the lead of Andy Schleck in the Tour de France Stage 12. Lance Armstrong's Team RadioShack took the overall team lead.

Christophe Ena/AP
Alberto Contador of Spain, right, waits behind Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, left, to take the start of the 12th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 210.5 kilometers (130.8 miles) with start in Bourg-de-Peage, and finish in Mende, France, Friday.

The much-anticipated battle for the Tour de France’s yellow jersey – between defending champion Alberto Contador and race leader Andy Schleck – was supposed to start Sunday in the Pyrénées.

But Contador bucked conventional wisdom today.

On the grueling final climb of Stage 12, won by Team Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, Contador stood up on the pedals and sped away from SaxoBank’s Schleck.

Though the Luxembourger eventually recovered to keep the yellow jersey for a fourth consecutive stage, a psychological blow was struck.

“Today I owed it to myself and to the race to attack,” Contador told reporters. “It was an important day for me.”

The Astana rider also picked up 10 seconds, whittling Schleck’s lead down to 31 seconds.

“At the end of the day, I’m happy I only lost 10 seconds,” said Schleck.

Not much changed in the overall individual classification today – Samuel Sanchez, in third place, is still two minutes and 45 seconds behind Schleck. But in team competition, Lance Armstrong's Team RadioShack pulled into first place. The move came despite US rider Levi Leipheimer falling back 7 seconds and Lance Armstrong losing another 3:35 minutes off the leaders.

Risk vs. reward

The 130.5-mile stage traversed the south-central region of France known as the Massif Central. With plenty of rolling hills, it was a perfect opportunity for breakaway riders to steal a stage.

Or that’s what Garmin-Transitions’ Ryder Hesjedal and 17 other riders thought as they leapt off the front of the peloton with 84 miles to go.

In the end, only Contador and his teammate Alexandre Vinokourov, who finished third, escaped being swallowed up by the SaxoBank-led peloton.

“I took a risk,” Hesjedal told the Monitor and other reporters. “Obviously [it didn’t pay off.]”

But he was content to have made the move.

“I’d rather just race here than just sit and follow,” he said. “It’s all about testing the limits for me here.”

Hesjedal’s Colorado-based team is being pushed to the brink in this year’s Tour de France. One day after teammate Robbie Hunter left the race with a fractured right elbow, Garmin-Transitions’ sprint specialist Tyler Farrar pulled out of the Tour about 50 kilometers into the stage.

Farrar had been riding with a broken left wrist since suffering a crash in Stage 2.

An old favorite

The last kilometers of the race headed up the short but steep Montée Laurent Jalabert, named for the retired French rider who won here on Bastille Day in 1995, before finishing on an airfield above the town of Mende.

Both Astana’s Contador and Vinokourov have enjoyed success here in the past. Contador has won two stages here during Paris-Nice, a one-week race each March. The most recent one was this year. In 1999, the Kazakh Vinokourov captured a stage of the now-defunct Grand Prix du Midi-Libre on the tarmac.

Andy Schleck, on the other hand, clearly did not enjoy today’s experience.

“It didn’t fit me at all,” he said. “I was not so surprised that I couldn’t stay with [Contador] on this climb.”

But Schleck maintained that he is ready for the Pyrénées, where he believes the longer, more challenging climbs will give him a chance to defend yellow against his Spanish rival.

“I know that I can take time from him there,” he said. “It will be a duel between Alberto and me.”

Overall standings after Stage 12:

1. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
2. Alberto Contador (Astana) +0'31"
3. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel – Euskadi) +2'45"
4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +2'58"
5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma – Lotto) +3'31"

Top US riders:

6. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +4'06"
24. Christopher Horner (RadioShack) +11'56"
32. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +21'16"

IN PICTURES: Scenes from the 2010 Tour de France

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