Alberto Contador fired a warning shot at yellow jersey rival Andy Schleck on Friday with a daring attack that allowed him to steal precious seconds off the Tour de France race leader.
Defending champion Contador went into the 210.5km stage from Bourg-Peage to Mende, where the finish was one kilometre after the punishing 3.1km 'Jalabert'
climb, with a 41sec deficit to the Saxo Bank team leader.
But a quick glance at Schleck less than halfway up told the Spaniard he had to take his chance - although what looked like a promising attack allowed him to steal only 10sec off his main rival.
Contador came into the home straight on the runway of Mende aerodrome with fellow Spaniard Joaquin Rodriguez for company after he had attacked before Contador on the final climb.
Rodriguez leads it out
In the end Rodriguez's superior sprint allowed him to hand Katusha their maiden win on this year's race, with Schleck finishing among a small group 10sec later to limit the damage.
Contador knows the big battle for the yellow jersey will be played out over four punishing days in the Pyrenees beginning on Sunday. But the Astana team leader claimed a small victory over Schleck that he says has left him confident for the challenge ahead.
"It's an important psychological blow. It's good to see your body responding like that after 210km of racing," said Contador.
"I'm very pleased about this looking to the Pyrenees, especially the sensations in the legs. The next thing is to recover in time for Sunday."
Schleck admitted, however, that he had expected to lose time on the 'Jalabert' climb, which is too short and steep for his climbing endurance talents.
"To be honest I suffered a bit today," said Schleck, who finished fifth on the stage and now leads Contador by 31sec. "It was a hard day and I wasn't looking forward to this climb. It's short and you have to be explosive - not my type at all. But I'm happy. I lost only 10sec in the end."
Third place went to Contador's Kazakh team-mate Alexandre Vinokourov, a survivor of a breakaway that started after 60km.
Vinokourov's presence in the breakaway allowed Astana the crucial luxury of not having to participate in the chase over the rolling, rugged terrain of the Ardeche.
"When I saw there were 10 or 15 riders going, I knew it was the right move," said Vinokourov, who finished third on the stage to move up to 12th overall at 6min 25sec behind Schleck. "It was our main objective, so we didn't have to put riders into the chase."
Contador watched Schleck closely
Once onto the climb, Contador watched Schleck carefully before launching his attack.
"I was on Andy's wheel and saw him looking weak for a moment and decided to go for it," added the Spaniard. "I saw he wasn't doing anything so I decided to go. It's a pity I couldn't cap it with the win.
"'Vino' did a great job getting into the break. It was very important having him there. We didn't have to work on what was a very hot and difficult day."
Norwegian Thor Hushovd and Slovenian Grega Bole's successful bid to join the breakaway was no coincidence either, although their aims were not targeted at the yellow jersey.
At the first intermediate sprint at Mariac (74.5km) Bole rode hard to cross first, stopping Hushovd, the green jersey rival of his Lampre team-mate Alessandro Petacchi, taking all six points at the line.
Reigning champion Hushovd came second to take four, thus drawing virtually level with the Italian sprinter on 161 points and at the second sprint with 52km to race he took all six points to take the jersey back.
Hushovd, who now leads Petacchi by six points, would soon be among the 14 riders left on their own when only Vinokourov, Vasil Kiryenka and Ryder Hesjedal were able to follow an acceleration by RadioShack's Andreas Klöden 50km from the finish.
© AFP 2010
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