GAP, France — Defending champion Alberto Contador caught his Tour de France rivals by surprise with a brash climbing attack Tuesday, gaining time on leader Thomas Voeckler during a rainy 16th stage won by Thor Hushovd.
Contador burst from pack in the final climb of the 101-mile course from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Gap. Among the other big title contenders, only Cadel Evans of Australia could keep up. Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, like Evans a two-time runner-up, lost ground.
“I knew I needed to attack,” Contador said. “I couldn’t care less if someone kept on my wheel — I knew one of them would fail. I’m so happy. It has been a major gap, much bigger that I expected.”
Voeckler expects to give up the yellow jersey before the race ends Sunday in Paris.
“I kept it by a handful of seconds, but that shows that I’ve hit my ceiling,” he said.
Hushovd led a three-man breakaway to win a stage for the second time on this Tour. Fellow Norwegian Edvald Boassen Hagen was second and Hushovd’s Garmin-Cervelo teammate Ryder Hesjedal was third.
Hushovd, a veteran star sprinter, showed off his new talents when he won Stage 13 over a big climb. This time, he broke away on a rolling course.
The Norwegian has been one of the stars of this race: He held the yellow jersey for six days early in the race after Garmin-Cervelo won the team time trial in Stage 2.
“To win another stage is very good,” he said.
Ten breakaway riders pressed the pace through most of the stage. By the finish, that group had thinned to the two Norwegians and Hesjedal, a Canadian.
As the pack prepared to scale the mid-grade Col de Manse climb, with less than 10 miles left, Contador sped to the front of the pack in a string of attacks to gain about 20 seconds on most favorites. Only Evans kept up.
The signal from Contador was clear: Don’t forget about me.
He finished 18 seconds ahead of Voeckler to reduce his deficit to the Frenchman to 3 minutes, 42 seconds. But, perhaps more important, the Spaniard also gained time on Schleck.
Evans finished 4:23 back in 11th place but crossed first among the major title contenders. Contador was close on the Australian’s heels, trailing three seconds later, in 12th.
Voeckler and Andy Schleck’s older brother, Frank, crossed 21 seconds after Evans. Andy Schleck, Contador’s Tour runner-up each of the last two years, was 1:09 slower than the Australian — and 1:06 behind Contador.
Overall, Evans leapfrogged Frank Schleck to take second, trailing Voeckler by 1:45. Frank Schleck, now third, remains 1:49 back. Contador moved up a notch to sixth, and is 3:42 behind.
Andy Schleck remains fourth, but is 3:03 back overall — compared to 2:15 when the stage began. Italy’s Ivan Basso, who crossed 51 seconds after Evans, fell to fifth from seventh and is 3:49 off the pace.
“Today was an opportunity for us to see what could happen,” said Jim Ochowicz, manager of Evans’ BMC squad. “We assumed that at some point Contador was going to try to take some time back. His move, when he made it, was the perfect opportunity for Cadel to counter.”
Frank Schleck said he and his brother had been caught off-guard.
“We know that he is a rider that attacks when he has good legs, but we had anticipated he would wait for the Alps.”
Andy Schleck said he was “disappointed,” but insisted “there are other chances to take back time.” Still, his inability to keep up with Contador and Evans on a relatively easy climb raised questions about how he can contend.
While the Schlecks still lead Contador, many say they need to build a cushion against the Spaniard if they hope to win the Tour before Saturday’s time trial — Contador’s forte. The Schlecks are best known as strong climbers, but so is Contador.
Andy Schleck complained on Twitter about a quick succession of drug tests Saturday, including one in a restaurant where he had to carry a urine sample as others were dining.
The International Cycling Union and France’s anti-doping agency are doing hundreds of doping checks during the race. UCI officials have been unapologetic about the intensity of its doping controls.
Contador tested positive for clenbuterol during the Tour last year, but has denied wrongdoing. He is riding this year because the Court of Arbitration for Sport hasn’t ruled on his case yet. He could be stripped of his 2010 title if it rules against him next month.
The three-week race veers into Italy for Wednesday’s Stage 17 — a 111-mile ride from Gap to the Italian town of Pinerolo.