Spaniard Contador, racing despite being the subject of a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing next month into his failed drugs test at last year’s Tour, thought he had won the 172.5-kilometre route from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne, but Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) prevailed by a tyre’s width.
Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) now sits in 41st place, still one minute 42 seconds behind race leader Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) but eight seconds closer to 2009 and 2010 Tour runner-up Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek), who is ninth. Hushovd finished in the 10-man leading group alongside Evans and Contador, with Team Sky leader Bradley Wiggins six seconds behind in 11th place and his team-mate Geraint Thomas, David Millar (Garmin-Cervelo) and Schleck among those two seconds further back.
Ireland’s Nicolas Roche moved up to 27th overall, one minute 12 seconds behind the leader.
Roche finished in 43rd place yesterday in a group which came in 19 seconds behind the stage winner. Millar is now fourth overall, eight seconds behind his team-mate Hushovd, Wiggins is sixth, two seconds further back, and Thomas seventh.
Contador meanwhile, champion in 2007, 2009 and 2010, maintains his positive test for clenbuterol was a result of contaminated meat and protests his innocence, but his participation in the sport’s biggest race is controversial.
The Spaniard, favourite ahead of the Tour, has endured a difficult start, losing time on Saturday’s opening stage and in Sunday’s team time-trial, and would not be a popular winner of the yellow jersey.
After chipping away at his deficit to his overall rivals, Contador was content yesterday but he is doubtful over his ambitions of another Tour success on July 24.
The 28-year-old, who won May’s Giro d’Italia, said: “It was a very important day, very good for my morale — now I’ve been able to show myself again.
“It’s good to get time, even if it’s just seven or eight seconds. I obviously didn’t have a good start and I wanted to win for the team and the fans. I don’t know if I can win this race overall or not. There are other riders who have had a better approach to it than me, like Andy Schleck, like Cadel Evans.”
Contador had to take a risk on yesterday’s stage, which took place in damp conditions and featured rolling hills.
The day’s five-man breakaway was caught with 4km remaining before the real action began in the finale, the 2km climb out of Mur-de-Bretagne.
Contador attacked with 1.3km remaining, with stage one winner Philippe Gilbert in pursuit, along with Evans, Frank Schleck and others.
Contador accelerated again only to be pipped on the line by Evans, with Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) third and Team Sky’s Colombian climber Rigoberto Uran fourth.
Evans’ success came after he suffered a mechanical problem 20km from the finish and was forced to change bikes, requiring extra effort to be paced back to the front of the peloton.
And the 2007 and 2008 runner-up paid tribute to his team-mates, in particular George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt, following his second Tour stage success.
Evans said: “It was very close. I didn’t know if I had it on the line myself.
“To win a stage here in the first week is a real bonus and I owe it all to my team.”