Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), resplendent in the French national champion’s jersey, won the 187.5-kilometre stage from Pamiers to Bagneres-de-Luchon, but in a highly-eventful Tour there was yet another twist.
Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) lost around 40 seconds when his chain slipped as he attempted to attack on the 19.3km Port de Bales hors categorie (beyond category) climb and he finished 39 seconds behind Contador (Astana) to fall back into second place overall with five days of racing remaining.
“My stomach is full of anger,” said Schleck, who now sits eight seconds behind the two-time champion, having begun the day with a 31-second lead. “The race is not finished and I want to take my revenge. I can end it like a champion.”
Two climbs of the fabled Col du Tourmalet come in the next two race days – on today’s 16th stage from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau and tomorrow’s 17th stage, which finishes at the summit of the 18.6km climb.
But Schleck is now chasing Contador, who is seeking a third Tour title in four years in Paris on Sunday.
With 3km to the summit of the Port de Bales, Schleck attacked. Moments later he was undone by his chain slipping. Contador went ahead, passing a stationary Schleck and reaching the top of the climb 27 seconds ahead of the yellow jersey incumbent. The summit came 21.5km before a steep descent to the finish and Contador extended his advantage in the closing kilometres and finished two minutes 50 seconds behind Voeckler – but crucially 39 seconds ahead of Schleck.
Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) was second to Voeckler – the fifth French stage winner of the Tour so far – finishing 1min 20secs behind alongside Aitor Perez Arrieta (Footon Servetto). Contador was one of eight riders to finish in the third group, while Schleck finished 3:29 behind Voeckler today.
Schleck was not impressed. The 25-year-old, who will today wear the white jersey for best young rider, was among a swathe of riders who crashed on the second stage from Brussels to Spa, when the peloton controversially waited.
He added: “These guys waited in Spa when I crashed, so that was fair. Today is a different story. I would not have raced like that and taken advantage of that situation. These guys don’t get the fair play prize today.”
In Spa, Fabian Cancellara, then in possession of the yellow jersey, organised for the peloton to wait in as his Team Saxo Bank leaders Andy and Frank Schleck – now out of the race after injuring his shoulder on stage three – crashed on a day when many riders struggled in slippery conditions.
Contador – against usual convention when another rider is afflicted with a mechanical problem – yesterday rode on. Schleck said he confronted Contador behind the podium following the presentation of the jerseys. He said: “I asked him in there, how can you do that?”
Contador was booed on the podium as he received the fabled maillot jaune – a prize he is aiming to keep until Paris.
Meanwhile Ireland’s Nicholas Roche had a bitterly disappointing day in the saddle, placing 37th on the stage, almost eight minutes behind stage winner Voeckler. The Dubliner was ascending very well on the final climb of the day – the Port de Bales where all the drama unfolded when he was unlucky to puncture out of the front group and had to wait for a very slow wheel change.
To compound his misery, the former National Champion had no support to pace him back up the front group as all his team-mates had been dropped at that stage, except for John Gadret who ignored team protocol in assisting his stricken team leader and actually attacked the group ahead.
Disconsolate, Roche rolled in on his own as he dropped from 14th to 17th overall, which will significantly dent his chances of a top 15 finish when the race concludes on Sunday.