Contador upstages Tour field

VERBIER, Switzerland -- Alberto Contador made the sign of the gun as he crossed the finish line on this Alpine crest Sunday in tribute to his nickname, El Pistolero. But truly, the slightly built Spaniard didn't resemble a weapon so much as a bird released from tightly cupped hands, flying out of a haze of hype and doubt and drama.

It was simple in the end. Contador rose out of the saddle near the base of the final climb in Stage 15 of the Tour de France and with a flurry of quick, hard pedal strokes distanced himself from seven-time winner Lance Armstrong and a gaggle of other contenders. Contador settled back into his seat after that and steadily pulled away, standing up again near the top to squeeze a few more precious seconds out of his ride.

And with that, nearly a year of talk and two weeks of inconclusive racing at the Tour finally came to a head. Contador lived up to his billing as the most explosive climber in the world and now holds the Tour lead by 1 minute, 37 seconds over teammate Armstrong, who acknowledged he couldn't keep up.

"I'm happy to have earned this jersey," Contador said, clearly elated. It took a minute to register what he meant. In 2007, Contador didn't seize the lead of the Tour he eventually won; he inherited it after the bizarre downfall of Danish rider Michael Rasmussen, fired by the Rabobank team the last week of the race for previously evading drug testing. Contador declined to wear the yellow jersey the next day and put it on only after the end of the stage.

Since then, Contador has won cycling's two other three-week Grand Tours and is widely acknowledged as the best stage racer in the sport. But his victory Sunday required a lot more than demonstrating his prowess on a 5.5-mile climb.

Contador was blindsided during this past September's Tour of Spain by the news of the 37-year-old Armstrong's return. He has had few peaceful days since. At times, he looked too frail and wide-eyed to withstand the heat of the media microscope or Armstrong's slow drip of psychological pressure.

Quiet and outwardly guarded, Contador, 26, is a man of few words. Perhaps he doesn't read or listen to many, either. He has seemed almost placid in his news conferences. When he went up the road, he didn't so much as look over his shoulder to see Armstrong, a man who was once his idol, toiling behind him, jersey unzipped, his familiar state of Texas pendant swaying back and forth with his effort.

Contador didn't even rate the day as the most important of his career, assigning that to the first day he raced again in 2005 after undergoing surgery for a burst blood vessel in his brain the year before.

Armstrong didn't fume or show much emotion other than fatigue when he chugged across the finish line in ninth place, having been dropped by several other riders, including 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre. Armstrong said he would be happy to work for Contador -- a statement he has made before, but never with a significant time gap staring him in the face.

"If we ride into Paris with the yellow jersey in the team, I'm cool with that," Armstrong said. "I've got seven of them at home.

"A day like this clearly shows who's best. I wasn't on a par with what's required to win the Tour. For me, that's reality, it's not devastating news or anything."

Armstrong might have lost even more time were it not for the supportive presence of teammate Andreas Kloeden, and there is reason to wonder whether Levi Leipheimer, who withdrew from the race with a broken wrist beofre Friday's stage, might have been able to make a difference. But Contador didn't just ride away from Armstrong, he rode away from the best of his own generation as well.

Christian Vande Velde, who has been a teammate of both men, said last week that Contador is made of far sterner stuff than it might appear. "Attacking like he did and doing what he does, that doesn't come naturally to anyone," Vande Velde said in a moment of reflection on the Tour's first rest day. "I don't care how gifted you are. You have to train hard. He's got the eye of the tiger, and he's a tough kid. He's stubborn."

Vande Velde is hardheaded enough himself to have come back from a horrific crash in May to race here, but Sunday's torrid pace at the base of the climb set by Saxo Bank proved to be too much for him and he dropped to 12th, nearly four minutes shy of Contador.

Vande Velde, the Garmin-Slipstream leader, said he will revert to his previous role of lieutenant for teammate Bradley Wiggins, the track cycling star-turned-climber whose impressive ride Sunday lifted him to third place overall. Wiggins would have been unheard of as a podium candidate even a year ago, but if he can maintain the status quo in the remaining mountain stages, Thursday's time trial should help his cause immensely.

A church bell coincidentally tolled while Contador was answering reporters' questions, but Vande Velde cautioned Sunday that there are several more stages that could wreak havoc on the standings.

"This last week is going to be so brutal; anything can happen," Vande Velde said. "I think anyone within five minutes can still do something. Long breakaways, crashes, bad weather -- that's why the Tour is such a cool event. That's why you've got to keep pushing and trying."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.