Italy's Vincenzo Nibali stamped his dominance on the Tour de France by winning Stage 10 in the Vosges mountains on Monday — shortly after his biggest rival for the title, two-time champion Alberto Contador, crashed out with a fractured shin after a high-speed spill.
Nibali, the Astana team leader, also regained the overall race lead from France's Tony Gallopin — who had taken the leader's yellow jersey off him a day earlier — in the 161.5-kilometre trek from the eastern city of Mulhouse to a super-steep uphill finish at La Planche des Belles Filles.
With a final burst of speed in the last two kilometres, Nibali overtook breakaway rider Joaquim Rodriguez. The Spaniard, heaving hard as Nibali overtook him, caught back up briefly but then the Italian accelerated brutally with 700 metres to go.
By the end, Nibali crossed 15 seconds ahead of France's Thibault Pinot in second and Spain's Alejandro Valverde in third, a further five seconds behind. The Italian recovers the yellow jersey that he wore for seven days after he won the Tour's second stage in the hills of Yorkshire in northern England.
"My legs felt good. I knew the last three kilometres were the toughest, and that's when I accelerated," said Nibali, sucking his thumb in a tribute to his young daughter as he finished. "I thought Rodriguez would follow but he seemed to have trouble."
With Contador out, Nibali is now the favourite to win his first Tour. He has won the Italian Giro and the Spanish Vuelta — cycling's other "Grand Tours" along with the French race. Overall, he leads Richie Porte of Australia by nearly 2 minutes, 23 seconds, and Valverde, who is third, 2:47 back.
A string of crash injuries has meant that the Tour will have a first-time winner this year.
The departure of Contador, a 31-year-old Spaniard with Tinkoff-Saxo Bank, follows that of defending champion Chris Froome of Britain who crashed out in the fifth stage. Before the race began, they were considered the top two favourites. Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour winner, dropped out before Stage 4 following a crash injury a day earlier, though the Luxembourg rider said before the race that he wasn't in good enough shape to contend this year.
According to his spokesman, Contador said he wasn't exactly sure what caused the crash — which happened while he was speeding downhill at over 70 kph about halfway through the stage. Contador began the stage in ninth place overall — 4 minutes, 8 seconds back of Gallopin.
"He explained to me just a few minutes ago that he (hit) a stone or a hole in the road or something — and he crashed," Contador spokesman Jacinto Vidarte told The Associated Press by phone during the stage. "He couldn't do anything about it."
Streams of blood
TV images showed thick streams of blood pouring from Contador's right knee after the crash, his hip was scraped up, and the back of his jersey torn. Team director Bjarne Riis rushed over and bandaged the knee. Philippe Mauduit, a team sporting director, said initial X-rays showed that a Contador had a fractured shin.
Contador then sat back down on the grass bank and changed his left shoe as riders weaved through the narrow gap between him and his bicycle. After several minutes, he got back in the saddle of a new bike, and three teammates who had dropped back escorted him to try to make up lost time as the peloton pulled away up the Col du Platzerwaswel mountain pass.
The Spaniard rode for about another half-hour, clearly in pain, and finally stopped, got off, wiped his eyes and climbed into a team car.
Nibali said he was riding next to Contador, and almost went down himself.
"I feared that the Tour might be over for me too," the Italian said. "There were a lot of risks today, and I'm really sorry for Alberto Contador. I was right behind him and luckily I was able to avoid him. It was on a descent. The road wasn't in great condition.
"I don't know what happened, but it was just incredible," said Nibali. "He fell right in front of me and was rolling on the floor. We must have been going about 60 kilometres per hour."
There were crashes elsewhere.
Italian rider Michele Scarponi — Nibali's Astana teammate — sustained a heavy crash coming down from the penultimate climb up to Col des Chevreres. He misjudged a turn and thudded into a protective crash barrier, flipping over his bike and colliding with an adult spectator who was standing up. Scarponi was able to continue riding.
British rider Geraint Thomas also crashed near the end and continued riding with blood pouring out of his left elbow.
The stage featured four steep Category 1 climbs. The last section of the final ascent up to Belles Filles featured a punishing 20 per cent gradient which, as expected, shook up the pack and gave a clearer indication of contenders for overall victory of the three-week race on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 27.
The race has its first rest day on Tuesday before resuming with a slightly hilly 187.5-kilometre route from Besancon to Oyonnax in eastern France on Wednesday. Stage 11 will feature four moderate climbs toward the end.