BOURG ST MAURICE, France (Reuters) - Spain’s Mikel Astarloza used his climbing and downhill skills to win the mountainous 16th stage of the Tour de France on Tuesday as the leading contenders unsuccessfully tested each other out.
The Basque rider, 29, surged in the last two km of the 159-km trek to Bourg St Maurice to give his Euskaltel team their first Tour stage victory since 2003.
“I‘m a good climber, I can keep a good pace on the flat, but I‘m not a sprinter. My only chance was to attack from far and I‘m delighted it worked,” Astarloza told reporters.
Astarloza, who finished ninth overall in 2007, climbed to 11th place in the general classification.
Frenchman Sandy Casar had to be content with his sixth second place in a Tour stage, ahead of compatriot Pierrick Fedrigo, winner of the ninth stage in Tarbes.
Astarloza and the two Frenchmen were part of a break which shaped up in the two big climbs of the day, the Grand St Bernard and Petit St Bernard, crossing over to France from Switzerland and Italy.
Spaniard Alberto Contador retained his leader’s yellow jersey one minute 37 seconds ahead of team mate Lance Armstrong with Briton Bradley Wiggins third, 1:46 behind.
The leading contenders seemed content to neutralise each other until six km from the top of the Col du Petit St Bernard when Andy Schleck suddenly raised the tempo.
Only his brother Frank, Contador, his German team mate Andreas Kloeden, Wiggins and Italian Vincenzo Nibali were able to take the Luxembourg champion’s wheel.
The main victim of the move was Armstrong, who was initially dropped and seemed destined to lose more ground, like in the climb to Verbier on Sunday.
But the seven times Tour champion showed he should not be discounted too early.
The American took a little bit of time to recover before closing the gap within one km in the flowing style reminiscent of his glory days.
“I didn’t expect to make it across as quickly as I did but I felt good. My legs were good today,” he said.
”That acceleration felt like the Armstrong of old.
“I still maintain I can’t accelerate like these young kids can now. Maybe today in the back of my mind, I just wanted to ride my race and my tempo, as I didn’t do the other day when I got left behind,” Armstrong said.
As a result of his effort, most of the big names, with the exception of Australian Cadel Evans who again lost more than two minutes, reached the top of the Petit St Bernard together.
“It was a difficult stage. When the Schlecks attacked, I was able to follow but it was not easy, especially to follow Andy, who is very strong,” Contador said.
“I‘m not going to say I‘m tired otherwise I’ll be attacked tomorrow but I am,” the Tour leader added before paying tribute to Armstrong, who vowed after the Verbier stage to be his “domestique” from now on.
“What Lance did proves once again what a great champion he is. I‘m sure he will be great help in the days to come,” Contador said.
The Schleck attack ultimately proved pointless but made for a promising 17th stage to Le Grand Bornand on Wednesday, with five mountain passes which should favour more bold tactics.
The Schleck brothers will be without one of their most precious domestiques, Germany’s Jens Voigt, who crashed out of the Tour in the descent towards Bourg St Maurice and was taken to hospital with suspected concussion.
Before the stage started, an Astana team lorry was searched by customs at the Swiss border but nothing was found.
(Editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris
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