Australia's Cadel Evans resisted well, but felt the full force of "two of the Tour de France's best climbers" during his damage limitation excercise on the 14th stage Sunday.
A day after he moved up to second overall behind Rabobank climber Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, the 30-year-old Evans from Northern Territory was pushed into third place as Alberto Contador finally took flight.
The 24-year-old Spaniard, who made his return to racing at the 2005 Tour Down Under following an operation on a brain haemorrhage a year earlier, claimed his first stage win on the race after a thrilling race of attrition on the 15.9 climb to the second summit finish here.
After leaving a battling Evans in their wake barely six kilometres from the summit, Rasmussen and Contador reeled in the last remaining member of an earlier five-man attack.
Spaniard Antonio Colom was overtaken with three kilometres to go, perhaps oblivious to the destruction in his wake.
His Astana team leader, Alexandre Vinokourov, was a pale imitation of the man whose defiant victory in Saturday's 54 km time trial, in which Evans finished an impressive second, signalled a dramatic turnaround in fortunes.
Vinokourov's collapse began on the first big climb of Sunday's 197 km stage from Mazamet to Plateau de Beille, and continued until he limped over the finish over 28 minutes behind Contador, dropping to over 34 minutes overall.
"Vino" is now out of the race for the yellow jersey, which will now, finally, be the objective of his German teammate, Andreas Kloden.
However the German admitted he was still suffering from the injuries sustained in his crash on Saturday's time trial.
"It was a very tough day for me," said the German, who began trailing nine kilometres from the summit as the pace of Discovery Channel's Yaroslav Popovych continued taking a costly toll.
With a total of five climbs, including two which are graded category one and the feared Port de Bales, which is "unclassified", Monday's 15th stage is even more difficult - and could decide whether Evans will finish on the podium, or off it.
Given that he is regarded as one of the most consistent climbers of the bunch, Evans will, deep down, be hoping that either Rasmussen or Contador will suffer what the French call a "jour sans" (off-day).
Neither showed signs of that on Sunday. Evans tried hard, but finally ran out of juice as the relentless accelerations from Contador and Rasmussen finally took their toll.
"I was going fine until Rasmussen and Contador started attacking, they're the two best climbers in the race," said Evans, who finished the stage 1:52 down and is now 3:04 behind Rasmussen.
"When I couldn't follow them I just tried to limit my losses because I knew it was really windy at the top (of the mountain)."
Contador, who won Paris-Nice in March, had left Evans in his wake on the way to the summit of the Galibier in the Alps.
But it remains to be seen if he can convert those climbing skills into sheer power on the penultimate stage time trial, a relatively flat 55.5 km race against the clock from Cognac to Angouleme on Saturday which could give Evans one last hope.
Contador meanwhile should now take over Discovery Channel's bid for the yellow jersey from team leader Levi Leipheimer.
"The race leader is still Rasmussen. He's strong, but today I was happy to take time from Evans," said Contador, the first rider to win here since former Discovery rider Lance Armstrong, in 2004.
"Now, if I feel good I will aim to attack Rasmussen."
"He's [Contador] shown he's a phenomenal rider, and we've got to support him," said Leipheimer, who sits fourth at 4:29.
Phenomenal is not the word being used to describe Rasmussen, as the skinny Dane continues to defy expectation - and the Tour hierarchy - as he marches towards what would be a very controversial triumph if it happens.
Rabobank, sponsored by a leading Dutch bank, have been under increasing pressure since Rasmussen admitted he had committed an "administrative error" after missing random doping controls by the International Cycling Union (UCI) on March 24, 2006 and June 28, 2007.
The suspicion of doping is growing, and some teams are openly livid that he has not been pulled from the race.
Evans, meanwhile, said he was far from finished.
"I'm a little bit disappointed. But it's not the end of the Tour yet."
© AFP 2007