LUZ-ARDIDEN, France — Score one for the Schleck brothers — Andy and Frank — against defending champion Alberto Contador.
The Tour de France entered the Pyrenees on Thursday, and the Schlecks delivered a 1-2 punch with attacks at the end of the 131-mile Stage 12 from Cugnaux to the Luz-Ardiden ski station. By the finish, Contador was gritting his teeth.
Spanish climbing specialist Samuel Sanchez, whose team is based in nearby Basque country, gave the home crowd reason to celebrate. He won the stage after riding inspired through a sea of red, green and white Basque flags.
And the current darling of French cycling — Thomas Voeckler — surprised himself by keeping the yellow jersey on Bastille Day after scaling three punishing peaks.
Sanchez and Voeckler, however, aren't expected to be among the contenders for the title when the race ends July 24 on Paris' Champs-Elysees.
Contador and Andy Schleck — and maybe his brother — are. That will be after the race runs through more punishment in the Alps in Week Three and a pivotal individual time trial in Grenoble on the next-to-last race day.
Thursday's leg showed that the once indomitable Contador, who had a dismal Tour start because of crashes and stumbles at his Saxo Bank team, can be vulnerable in the mountains.
"I was a bit careful," the three-time Tour champion said. "I saw the Schlecks were discussing together and that they were going to play their cards. Frank was the stronger — and both of them attacked.
"But I'm nevertheless happy with this first mountain stage. Each day, I feel better. … I still don't have my best legs. I'm not riding with the same rhythm, but it's encouraging."
Voeckler had predicted — feared — that he'd lose the yellow shirt Thursday.
"I'm glad I was wrong," he said with a smile. "Keeping the jersey was far from expected as the stage started today. … You have to believe that the yellow jersey gives you a bit of added inspiration on the Bastille Day.
"I surprised myself. I'm not stronger, but the jersey gave me an extra motivation to reach a new level in suffering and go beyond suffering."