Alberto Contador builds momentum with strong Stage four
Updated: July 6, 2011 - 07:43 am
- Tyler Farrar of the US forms a
MUR-DE-BRETAGNE, France (AP) — Alberto Contador began the Tour de France badly but make no mistake, the three-time champion is back on the prowl.
After a dismal Tour start, the Spaniard showed signs Tuesday of his characteristic dominance at cycling's greatest event, gaining seconds on his major likely rivals by finishing second behind Stage 4 winner Cadel Evans in a two-man photo finish.
Norway's Thor Hushovd, a sprint specialist, just barely retained the yellow jersey after the 172.5-kilometer (107-mile) stage from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne, surprising himself by keeping up with Evans and Contador on a steep, if short, climb to the finish.
The stage in mostly flat Brittany epitomized two aspects of the three-week race so far: Evans has been nearly flawless and Contador — who hasn't — can never be ruled out.
The finish was so close that Contador even raised a fist to celebrate what he believed was his victory — until a black-and-white photo showed his tire was a fraction of an inch behind.
The Spaniard's strong finish demonstrated "Contador again proving himself. He was up there and riding well," Evans said. "He's never a guy you can underestimate."
"I still can't quite believe it ... It was a very close final, I didn't even know if I had it on the line myself," Evans said. "To win in front of Alberto Contador is really a nice present."
Contador's real success was showing that even on a short climb — long before punishing Alps and Pyrenees ascents — he can gain time on his major competitors: Bradley Wiggins of Britain was 6 seconds back, and the runner-up in 2009 and 2010, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, was 8 seconds behind.
"Losing seven seconds (sic) (to Contador) isn't good, but it's not a catastrophe," he said. "I never thought that he was out of the race; he just had bad luck the first day and his team wasn't suited for the time trial."
Hushovd, who holds a one-second lead over Evans, was just happy to cling to the coveted yellow tunic. The Norwegian sprinter isn't expected to fare well in the mountain stages that could determine the race winner.
"My only goal today was to keep the yellow jersey," said Hushovd, of Garmin-Cervelo. "I had a great day ... I will do all I can to defend this jersey as long as possible."
Wiggins is sixth overall, 10 seconds back, and Schleck trails in ninth, 12 seconds back. Americans Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer are 18 seconds behind — respectively 14th and 15th.
Contador remains 1:42 behind Hushovd in 41st place after two dismal opening days at the Tour, first being stalled by a crash Saturday and then losing time with his Saxo Bank squad in the team time trial on Sunday.
By contrast, Evans' stage victory capped what has so far been a nearly impeccable Tour for him. He was second behind stage winner Philippe Gilbert on the opening day Saturday, and his BMC team was second in the team time trial a day later. Unlike Contador and Schleck, Evans has avoided crashes.
Contador, who expressed frustration about a lack of "luck" in recent days, said he was out to test his competition even if the stage wasn't crucial to the outcome in cycling's showcase three-week race.
"I wanted to see how my rivals were, to see if I could take some time off them," Contador said. "Getting the stage win, when I was so close, would have been a great joy."
Bjarne Riis, Contador's Saxo Bank team manager, played down the importance of the Spaniard's besting of his main expected title challengers on Tuesday.
"The stage shows that Alberto is ready for the Tour which we have known from the start of the race," he said. "There's a huge difference from climbing a slope like this and climbing Galibier or Alpe d'Huez. You can't count on seeing the same riders finish like this on the big mountains."
The Spaniard is racing under a cloud of suspicion after testing positive during last year's Tour for the banned muscle builder clenbuterol. He's been allowed to ride because sport's arbitration body hasn't ruled on his case yet.
Some fans have booed Contador, and he's been on the defensive; insisting that his psychological state is solid and that he's not distracted by speculation that yet another cycling great might be involved in doping.
Riders set off under rain in the coastal city of Lorient, whose name is derived from the 17th century shipyards and port for ships that hauled back spices, teas, silk, porcelain and other goods from Asia, or "The Orient."
Seemingly the whole pack began the ride in rain jackets, but gradually peeled them off as skies dried up. The roads were mostly wet, though there were some dry patches on the weaving course.
Jurgen Van de Walle of Belgium became the first rider to pull out, reducing the field to 197 racers. The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider quit due to lingering groin pain from a crash Saturday, his team said.
Five riders who were low in the standings sped ahead of the pack by the 9-kilometer (5.5-mile) mark, and built a lead of nearly 5 minutes on the main bunch over the next 15 kilometers (10 miles).
But as is common in flat rides, when the chasing pack rotates front men to cut into the wind, the peloton tracked down and overtook the increasingly tired escapees with 4 kilometers left.
That set the stage for the leaders to break out alone to scale the Mur-de-Bretagne, a 2-kilometer climb with a super-steep patch known by some as the "Alpe d'Huez of Brittany" after the famous peak in the French Alps.
"This was a short, steep climb — not a mountain pass," Contador said. "Cadel Evans is showing a lot of strength, but even if Andy or others lost a few seconds, it doesn't mean they're not in shape."
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