Alberto Contador signalled his yellow jersey intentions in defiant style after sensationally attacking Andy Schleck on Monday when the Luxemburger suffered a mechanical problem.
French champion Thomas Voeckler handed the hosts their fifth success of the race after soloing to victory on the 15th stage, finishing nearly three minutes ahead of the race favourites.
However, as he raced away to victory on the 21.5km descent from the Port de Bales climb, all the race drama was going on behind him.
Contador was caught by surprise by a Schleck attack inside the final two kilometres of the 19.3km ascent of the Bales summit. Although he had moved to counter, the Spaniard did not stop for the Saxo Bank leader after his gear mechanism broke seconds later, leaving Schleck stranded on the hill and having to fix the problem himself.
Contador raced ahead with Russian Denis Menchov and Spaniard Samuel Sanchez to crest the summit just over 20sec ahead of Schleck. And together the trio completed the descent, later catching up with several breakaway riders who had been droppped by Voeckler, to finish 39sec ahead of the Luxemburger.
The chain comes off
Schleck, the runner-up to two-time champion Contador last year, is now eight seconds behind in second place, with Sanchez and Menchov still in third and fourth respectively.
Although mechanical problems are considered part and parcel of bike racing, Schleck hit out immediately at Contador for not being "fair play".
"In the same situation I would not have taken advantage," said Schleck, who had held the yellow jersey since taking it from Australia's Cadel Evans on stage nine. "I'm not the jury, but for sure those guys wouldn't get the fair play award from me today."
Schleck had to hold his anger back as he swapped the yellow jersey for the white jersey for the race's best-placed rider aged 25 or under.
And he has promised to take his revenge on Contador swiftly.
"I'm really disappointed. My stomach is full of anger, and I want to take my revenge," he said. "I will take my revenge in the coming days."
Contador pulled on the yellow jersey for the first time in this year's race, but said he was unaware that Schleck's chain had come off.
"I set out with the intention to attack on the climb, but when I countered Andy I didn't know he actually had a problem," said the Spaniard. "When I knew he had the problem, it was already too late. We had taken a significant lead on him."
Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis, meanwhile, appeared to side with Contador.
"I didn't see it but it's all part of racing circumstances," said the Dane. "I think he (Contador) waited at the start, and then he went. That's just part of racing."
Voeckler kept the hosts' winning streak alive in the race just a day after Christophe Riblon's superb solo victory on the summit of Ax-3-Domaines.
The 31-year-old Bbox-Bouygues Telecom rider is perhaps best known for the 10 days he spent in the yellow jersey in 2004. But he showed style and determination after attacking his breakaway group late in the climb to Bales to go on and claim his third stage win in the race.
"I worked hard for this stage win," said Voeckler, who admitted he almost abandoned the race last week. "It has been a really difficult race for me and, if there had been crosswinds on (the stage during) July 14 instead of a headwind, I would almost certainly have pulled out.
"In the past three days I've been feeling much better."
© AFP 2010
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