Alberto Contador tightened his grip on the Tour de France yellow jersey after soaking up attacks from Luxembourg rival Andy Schleck on the race's 16th stage into Bourg-Saint-Maurice on Tuesday.
Spaniard Miguel Astarloza won the 159km stage from Martigny in Switzerland to France, after attacking his breakaway companions 2.4km from the finish to hand Euskaltel their first stage win of this year's race.
"It's the best day of my life," said Astarloza, who was claiming his maiden win on the Tour. "I've tried several times to win stages on the race but I've always failed because I'm not that good at sprinting. That's why I attacked from far out."
Contador showed his class on a day which included a total of 48km of climbing to take another step towards repeating his yellow jersey feat of 2007, when he beat Australian Cadel Evans by 23 seconds.
As Evans dropped further down the standings to over seven minutes in arrears, Contador repelled attempts to loosen his grip on the race by the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank, of Saxo Bank.
In the end, there were few changes in the overall standings with Contador finshing in an 18-man group which came home 59 seconds behind Astarloza.
The Spaniard still holds a 1:37 lead over seven-time champion and Astana teammate Lance Armstrong, while Briton Bradley Wiggins showed he can still be a threat by sticking with Contador throughout most of the day to keep his third place, 1:46 behind the Spaniard.
Andy Schleck is still fifth at 2:26 while Spain's defending champion Carlos Sastre battled back to Contador's group after an earlier slip to stay ninth at 3:52.
Contador said: "Saxo Bank tried to attack us with Frank and Andy (Schleck), who showed he really was the strongest. I managed to stick with him but it was a difficult stage."
How the drama unfolded
On the second of three days in the Alps most of the drama unfolded on the latter stages of the 22.6 km climb to the summit of the Col du Petit Saint Bernard.
As Saxo Bank drove the pace high to try and eliminate some rivals Andy Schleck accelerated away from the yellow jersey group to force a first split.
Armstrong and Evans were left trailing but Contador, wearing the yellow jersey, was able to follow along with Bradley Wiggins, Frank Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali and Andreas Kloden, also of Astana.
The Schleck brothers attempted to toy with their rivals on the way up to the summit, but as Frank tired Armstrong launched a thrilling counter-attack which soon woke the Luxemburger from his slumber.
Contador admitted Armstrong's return was welcome, but the Spaniard said he was doing quite okay by himself.
"It was great to see Lance Armstrong make it back to our group on the Petit Saint-Bernard, but in the end I didn't need his help," added Contador, who stamped his authority on the race with his stage victory to Verbier on Sunday.
That seemed to be the end of the hostilities, however, as a group containing Sastre was able to make it back to Armstrong, Contador and the Schlecks before the summit.
Up ahead Astarloza's group came over the summit with a lead of two minutes.
The four man group had a 14-second lead over another quartet including Irishman Nicolas Roche - son of former winner Stephen - while the yellow jersey group were still over a minute behind.
There was one nasty incident as German veteran Jens Voigt -- a teammate of Andy Schleck -- took a terrible fall and according to some reports had to be taken to hospital.
After a high-speed descent Astarloza seized the initiative just over two kilometres from the finish. He left his breakaway companions trailing and even though the other quartet joined them, the Spaniard had timed it to perfection to come home clear.
© AFP 2009
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