The Tour de France turned into a two-way battle as Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck distanced every other contender on the slopes of the Col de la Madeleine to seize control of the race on Tuesday.
Frenchman Sandy Casar won Stage 9, a 127-mile run through the Alps. Schleck and Contador finished two seconds behind Casar and far ahead of all their rivals for the overall, with Schleck taking over the yellow jersey from Cadel Evans, who exploded on the Medeleine and lost more than eight minutes to fall out of contention for the final podium.
Schleck now leads Contador by 41 seconds in the general classification, with Spaniard Samuel Sanchez third at 2:45. (Full standings here.)
Lance Armstrong followed the worst day of his Tour de France career with a strong ride in support of teammate Levi Leipheimer, who finished the stage 2:07 behind Casar and moved up to sixth overall. Armstrong came across the line a further 40 seconds back, after pacing Leipheimer on the Madeleine.
Casar was part of an early breakaway that was gradually whittled down to just five riders as the Madeleine took its toll. Behind them, a group of about 20 riders, including all the contenders for the overall, started chasing them down. Evans fell off the back as the speeds picked up, and moments later Schleck shot off the front, taking Contador with him.
From there it became a two-man show. Schleck and Contador tried to attack each other a few times but eventually started working together to distance the rest of the field. They caught the break less than a mile from the finish but didn’t contest the sprint.
While Leipheimer probably won’t make up his 3:59 deficit to Schleck, he has put himself into position to challenge for a place on the final podium. He’ll have Armstrong helping him, which should only increase his chances. But Schleck and Contador showed today that they are the class of the Tour de France.
The Tour will leave the Alps tomorrow with a moderately hilly route that shouldn’t see any changes to the overall. The next test for the big guns will come on Sunday as the Tour enters the Pyrenees for three days.
Schleck will have to take more time out of Contador in the mountains if he hopes to keep the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. The Tour’s penultimate stage is a 32-mile time trial that Contador, one of the world’s best time-trialists, will be a favorite to win. Schleck tends to struggle in races against the clock and will need a much bigger cushion than the 41 seconds he currently has. So expect some attacks.