Astana's Alberto Contador stamped his authority on the Tour de France when he left Lance Armstrong trailing in his wake following a bold, morale-sapping attack in the final ascent of the seventh stage.
|Contador enjoys the finish line support [AFP]
The Spaniard made his move with some two kilometres remaining in the 10.6-km climb to Arcalis and seven-times champion Armstrong could not keep up the pace.
"There was no plan but when I saw that (Cadel) Evans, (Andy) Schleck and the rest were not trying anything, I felt there was an opportunity and I took it because I had good legs," Contador said.
France's Brice Feillu snatched a solo victory in the 224-km stage from Barcelona ahead of compatriot Christophe Kern and German Johannes Froehlinger.
Contador is now second in the overall standings, six seconds adrift of Italy's Rinaldo Nocentini, who took the yellow jersey from Swiss Fabian Cancellara after being part of a nine-man breakaway.
Armstrong, who started the day level on time with Cancellara, is third, two seconds behind his Astana team mate and rival.
"There was no real plan, it (the attack) was not really expected but not surprising," Armstrong, back on the saddle after 3-1/2 years in retirement, said.
"I feel quite good but it was not a steep climb."
However, the Texan would not concede defeat to Contador, whose performance showed he can now demand to be Astana's sole leader.
"Like I always said, there is still a long way to go," Armstrong said, although he left the door ajar to Contador, adding: "Like I said all along, I have to think about the team.
"Overall I feel pretty good, I'm not as knackered as I thought I would be. Things did not quite go according to the plan set earlier today but it was a fine day overall."
The question on everybody's lips at the start of the stage was whether Armstrong would claim the yellow jersey he last wore on the Champs-Elysees in 2005 before retiring.
For a long time on Friday, it seemed he would fulfil his dream as the favourites' group perfectly chased the nine-man breakaway.
Australian Cadel Evans, twice a Tour runner-up, was the first to try his luck but the Astana team did not let him go.
When Contador powered ahead without giving notice, the favourites were left stuck on the tar and the Spaniard accelerated twice more to discourage them from trying to catch him.
Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said he wished Nocentini had clinched the yellow jersey by a bigger margin as the AG2R rider is likely to lose it in Saturday's second mountain stage, putting the pressure of controlling the race back on the Kazakh-funded outfit.
|Rinaldo Nocentini tries on the yellow jersey for size [AFP]
"Our plan was to let a breakaway go with someone in it taking the yellow jersey," Bruyneel said.
"We were hoping there would be bigger margins. Six seconds, it's not a lot."
The escapees built a maximum gap of 12:30 but the pace in the favourites' group eventually proved too high.
"We had to set that pace to avoid attacks from Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre," said Bruyneel.
Levi Leipheimer and green jersey holder Mark Cavendish were involved in a crash shortly before the last climb but they made it unhurt to the line.
Among the favourites, Evans, defending champion Carlos Sastre and Andy Schleck were part of an 11-man group that crossed the line 3:47 behind Feillu - 21 seconds adrift of Contador.