The Tour de France's first day in the Alps always separates the men from the boys and Sunday's stage 15 was no exception.
After a very reserved ride through the Pyrenees, where none of the main contenders really made any big moves, this year's romp through the Alps promised to be the battle ground where the winner would be decided. Stage 15's 207km course, which meandered into Switzerland after only 10km in France and featured only two climbs above a category 2, proved to be quite a challenge to the peloton.
A breakaway group, including Swiss national champion and former GC leader Fabian Cancellara, lead the race for most of the day, but was never able to gain more then four minutes on the main field before the majority of the group was swept up by the peloton on the lead up to Verbier. However, before the breakaway dissipated the Slovakian rider, Simon Spilak, launched a surprise attack on the lower slopes of Verbier.
This was a big surprise to many in the tour, as Spilak was almost disqualified from the tour on an earlier stage, when he failed to make the time cut. Tour officials allowed him to continue and he awarded them with a fantastic ride. Tour officials named him the most competitive rider of the day.
Spilak, however, was also swept up by the peloton and then the real battle began. The main field was torn apart as the elite climbers took off for their battle up the mountain.
Astana lead the charge as a group containing Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong as well Saxo Bank's Andy and Frank Schleck, Silence-Lotto's Cadel Evans, Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins and few other riders broke apart the field.
About halfway up the mountain, Contador exploded from the group and left the others chasing. Andy Schleck immediately pursued but was unable to close the gap between Contador and himself.
For the next few kilometers it was Contador doing what he does best, climbing. As Armstrong and teammate Andreas Kloden helped keep Astana's opponents at bay, Contador made up the six seconds he was down and more, taking the stage one minute 37 seconds behind the next rider in the GC, which just so happens to be Lance Armstrong.
"I'm very pleased with the result. It was not a very long climb but we tackled it very rapidly and I was able to move as I wanted," Contador told reporters, adding, "I saw there was chance with 5km to go and I did what was required to make a difference."
Andy Schleck finished second on the stage and moved into 10th in the overall standings. Armstrong sits in second overall followed by Wiggins, who moved into third.
Defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Cervelo Test Team looked as if he would fall behind early on the final climb but regained his legs and was able to finish high up on the day. He now sits in 11th place behind Andy Schleck.
After the stage the controversy over who was Astana's team leader seemed to dissolve pretty quickly. Amrstrong seemed happy to have Contador in yellow and content with his role as a domestique.
"Sure Alberto is the best rider. Sure he is the best climber," Armstrong told reporter, "As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy to be his domestique. I'm proud of him."
Extra Notes: Tomorrow, Monday July 20, is a rest day. The Tour resumes on Tuesday in Martigny.
*Correction: On the stage 14 story, it was reported that Mark Cavendish was disqualified from the stage. He was not, instead tour officials relegated him the last place on the stage.