MUR-DE-BRETAGNE, France — Make no mistake, Alberto Contador is back on the prowl.
After a dismal start to the Tour de France, the three-time champion showed some of his old dominance Tuesday at cycling’s premier event. He gained seconds on his likely rivals by placing second to Stage 4 winner Cadel Evans in a two-man photo finish.
Norway’s Thor Hushovd, a sprint specialist, barely kept the yellow jersey in the 107-mile leg from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne. He even surprised himself by keeping up with Evans and Contador on a steep, if short, climb to the finish.
The stage in mostly flat Brittany underscored two aspects of the three-week race so far: Evans has been nearly flawless; Contador can never be ruled out.
The finish was so close that Contador raised a fist to celebrate what he believed was his victory. Then a black-and-white photo showed the Spaniard’s tire was a fraction of an inch behind.
“Contador again proving himself. He was up there and riding well,” Evans said. “He’s never a guy you can underestimate.”
“I still can’t quite believe it. … It was a very close final. I didn’t even know if I had it on the line myself,” Evans added. “To win in front of Alberto Contador is really a nice present.”
Contador showed that even on a short climb — long before the punishing Alps and Pyrenees ascents arrive — he can gain on key riders: Bradley Wiggins of Britain was six seconds back; Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, runner-up in 2009 and 2010, was eight seconds behind.
“I never thought that he was out of the race,” Andy Schleck. “He just had bad luck the first day and his team wasn’t suited for the time trial.”
Hushovd, who is ahead of Evans by a second, isn’t expected to fare well in the mountain stages that could determine the winner.
“My only goal today was to keep the yellow jersey,” said Hushovd, of Garmin-Cervelo. “I had a great day. … I will do all I can to defend this jersey as long as possible.”
Wiggins is sixth overall, 10 seconds back, while Schleck is ninth, 12 seconds back. Americans Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer are 18 seconds behind — 14th and 15th.
Contador remains 1:42 behind Hushovd in 41st place after two difficult opening days — stalled by a crash Saturday, then losing time with his Saxo Bank squad in the team time trial Sunday.
By contrast, this has been a nearly impeccable Tour for Evans. He was runner-up to stage winner Philippe Gilbert on opening day, and his BMC team was second in the team time trial a day later. Unlike Contador and Schleck, Evans also has avoided crashes.
Contador, frustrated over a lack of “luck” in recent days, said he was out to test his competition even if this stage wasn’t crucial.
“I wanted to see how my rivals were, to see if I could take some time off them,” Contador said. “Getting the stage win, when I was so close, would have been a great joy.”
“The stage shows that Alberto is ready for the Tour, which we have known from the start of the race,” said Bjarne Riis, Contador’s Saxo Bank team manager. “There’s a huge difference from climbing a slope like this and climbing Galibier or Alpe d’Huez. You can’t count on seeing the same riders finish like this on the big mountains.”
The Spaniard is racing under a cloud of suspicion after testing positive during last year’s Tour for the banned muscle builder clenbuterol. He’s been allowed to ride because sport’s arbitration body hasn’t ruled on his case yet.
Some fans have booed Contador, and he’s been on the defensive. He insists his psychological state is solid and he’s not distracted by speculation that yet another cycling great might be involved in doping.
Riders set off under rain in the coastal city of Lorient, whose name is derived from the 17th century shipyards and port for trading ships that hauled spices, teas, silk, porcelain and other goods from Asia, or “The Orient.”
It seemed as if the whole pack began in rain jackets, gradually peeling them off as skies dried up along the weaving course.
Jurgen Van de Walle of Belgium became the first rider to pull out of the race — reducing the field to 197 racers. The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider quit because of lingering groin pain from a crash Saturday, the team said.
Five riders who were low in the standings sped ahead of the pack by the 5.5-mile mark, and built a lead of nearly five minutes on the main bunch over the next 10 miles.
But as is common in flat rides, when the pack accelerates behind constantly changing front men who cut into the wind, the peloton tracked down and overtook the increasingly tired escapees with about 2½ miles left.
That set the stage for the leaders to break out alone to scale the Mur-de-Bretagne, which features a super-steep patch known by some as the “Alpe d’Huez of Brittany” after the famous peak in the French Alps.
“This was a short, steep climb — not a mountain pass,” Contador said. “Cadel Evans is showing a lot of strength, but even if Andy or others lost a few seconds, it doesn’t mean they’re not in shape.”
Jamey Keaten can be reached at http:///twitter.com/jameykeaten
AP Sports Writers Samuel Petrequin and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.