rodriguez-joaquin-100716

Joaquin Rodriguez crosses the finish line to win the 12th stage of the Tour de France. ((Laurent Rebours/Associated Press))

Joaquin Rodriguez of Spain won a hilly 12th stage of the Tour de France on Friday, leading a two-man sprint finish with Alberto Contador -- who gained 10 precious seconds in the title quest.

Contador, the defending champion, and Rodriguez burst out of the pack in a steep final climb, dusting race leader Andy Schleck to overtake several breakaway riders, including Victoria's Ryder Hesjedal.

Rodriguez, a 10-year veteran on the Katusha team riding in his first Tour, outsprinted Contador in the last few hundred meters of the 210.5-kilometre course from Bourg-de-Peage to Mende.

Rodriguez stretched out his arms, looked back and smiled as he nosed Contador at the line -- clocking four hours 58 minutes 26 seconds. Contador's Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov was third, four seconds back.

"I knew to anticipate, and I knew it was going to be difficult," said Rodriguez, who won the Volta of Catalunya in April. "I did it perfectly. I knew I'd be able to resist Alberto."

Hesjedal pushed the pace for most of the day, just as he had in the third stage, but was caught in the final kilometres. He dropped to 13th in the overall standigs.

Toronto's Michael Berry sits 89th.   

Rodriguez said he had ridden well in the Tours of Italy and Spain in the past, but "I just needed to win in the best race in the world," referring to the Tour de France.

Destined for drama

Contador finished 10 seconds ahead of Schleck, who was fifth, and reduced his deficit to the Saxo Bank team leader from Luxembourg to 31 seconds. Samuel Sanchez of Spain was third overall, 2:45 back, after crossing alongside Schleck in sixth place.

The finish was destined for drama. In the final kilometres, the pack scaled the La Croix Neuve pass -- featuring nearly two kilometres at an average gradient of more than 10 per cent.

Vinokourov and three other breakaway riders were the first at the foot of the climb. At first he and Belarus rider Vasil Kiryienko slugged it out alone and the Kazakh star rode out alone.

But with fewer than two kilometres to go, Contador caught Schleck off-guard by racing out wide in the climb and mustering a burst of speed. As the Spaniard rose up out of his saddle, his bike wagging side to side, Schleck couldn't or wouldn't lay chase -- and kept seated in a steady rhythm.

The two Spaniards then overtook Vinokourov, who is riding in his first Tour after serving out a doping ban. The Kazakh rider was kicked out of the 2007 Tour for blood doping.

Schleck sensed he wouldn't keep up with Contador.

"I knew this was going to be a really tough climb," he said of La Croix Neuve. "I don't like this climb, it doesn't fit me. It's short and steep and you have to be explosive -- not right for the kind of rider that I am.

"I'm happy I lost only 10 seconds in the end," said Schleck. "I was not so surprised I couldn't stay with him in this climb."

'I attacked too late'

Contador, too, thought he would have gained more time.

"I like this climb a lot. I felt good. I attacked too late, and I didn't know what state Andy was in," he said. "I was able to get a few seconds, it's good -- it shows I'm in form.

"It's always good to reduce the deficit, but it would've been better to get more than 10 seconds."

Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who has ruled himself out of contention in his final Tour, lost time to the leader for a third straight day -- crossing in 57th place, 3:35 back of Rodriguez. He's 32nd overall, 21:16 behind Schleck.

Tour organizers said U.S. sprint specialist Tyler Farrar of the Garmin-Transitions team dropped out of the race during Friday's stage. They and his team didn't immediately explain why. Farrar had been riding with a broken left wrist from one of numerous crashes on rain-slicked roads in Stage 2.

Saturday's 13th stage takes riders along 196 kilometres from Rodez to Revel, featuring five low-level climbs. Sunday marks the race entree into the Pyrenees -- where riders will spend four punishing stages.