Rolland is embraced by his team after breaking away from the pack in front of ecstatic crowds [AFP]

Frenchman Pierre Rolland won the 19th stage of the Tour de France, crossing the line at the top of the famed Alpe d'Huez after attacking near the end of the mountain's 21 brutally steep bends packed with thousands of wildly cheering fans.

Rolland attacked as the demanding 109.5km race over three difficult climbs drew to a tense finish, finally dropping three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador and Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez towards the top of the 6,100-foot Alpe d'Huez.

It was the first stage win for the French on this year's Tour.

Andy Schleck captured the yellow jersey from Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who cracked on Friday's first climb and never managed to catch the leaders despite a gritty struggle up the Alpe d'Huez.

Schleck now has a 53-second lead over his brother Frank in second place, while Australia's Cadel Evans is third, 57 seconds behind.

The stage from Modane was marked by daring attacks from reigning champion Contador on the first and last climbs of the day.

Schleck took the overall lead for the first time in the race by 53 seconds from his older brother Frank.

However in what could prove to be a decisive blow for the Luxemburgers, Australian Cadel Evans, who refused to budge during another epic  performance, sits in third place only 57 seconds off the lead.

Evans is considered the strongest time triallist in the current top ten.

The penultimate stage of the race is a 42.5 km time trial around Grenoble on Saturday.

Double attack

Contador attacked on the Col du Telegraphe after just 15km of racing and then after being caught attacked at the foot of the 13.8 km climb to the summit of Alpe d'Huez.

The Saxo Bank leader looked to be heading for the stage win that could have made amends for his spectacular collapse on Thursday.

But as the climb's legendary 21 hairpin bends began to take their toll he was eventually caught by fellow Spaniard Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel and Rolland with 3km to race.

Rolland, 24, then went off on his own with 2km from the finish and soloed across the line to savour his maiden win on the race.
Sanchez finished second at 14 seconds with Contador third at 23.

Evans pulled himself over the line 56 behind Rolland, and just ahead of the Schleck brothers, after a performance which – if he triumphs on Saturday – is likely to play a decisive role in him winning the Tour.

Contador is now sixth overall at 3:55 behind leader Schleck.

Source: Agencies