By Julien Pretot
GAP, France (Reuters) - The Tour de France truce ended in the hilly 16th stage to Gap on Tuesday when Alberto Contador showed he was far from finished and Cadel Evans emerged as the man to beat in the last week.
World champion Thor Hushovd won a Norwegian battle with Edvald Boasson-Hagen to secure his second individual stage win of the race, while the contenders for overall victory became involved in an unexpected dress rehearsal before three grueling stages in the Alps.
Contador launched hostilities with 15 kilometers to go in the 162.5-kms trek and each of his four attacks on the second category Col de Manse produced a clue to the questions left unanswered after the Pyrenees.
Only Evans was capable of keeping up with the three-times Tour champion and the Australian former mountain biker sped down the windswept Rochette descent toward Gap to finish four minutes and 23 seconds behind Hushovd.
Contador, whose knee injury now seems a distant memory, finished two seconds behind Evans alongside compatriot Samuel Sanchez, who was true to his promise to help the defending champion when possible.
Behind them, panic struck.
Yellow jersey holder Thomas Voeckler was the first to react to Contador's initial strike, but wasted vital strength in the process and lost 20 seconds to Evans.
In the overall standings, the Frenchman now leads the Australian former world champion by 1:45, with Luxembourg's Frank Schleck down to third place, four seconds behind Evans.
Frank's brother Andy, Tour runner-up for the past two years, was the main casualty of the day in the Rochette descent, famous for the crash which ended Spaniard Joseba Beloki's career in 2003.
Always fearful of the rain and uncomfortable going downhill, the younger Schleck lost 1:09 to Evans and 1:06 to Contador, who moved up a place to sixth, 3:42 behind Voeckler.
Among the other leaders to lose ground was Italian Ivan Basso, who trailed Evans by 54 seconds on the line.
"I'm glad. I had the impression the legs were doing better than in previous days and that's why on a day like this I had to try my luck," Contador said.
Voeckler kept his yellow jersey but admitted he had been taken aback by the Spaniard's initiative.
"It's a little bit scary when Contador attacks. With the kick he has in the climbs, I probably should have left the others chase but it's not my style.
"We didn't expect him to attack today, rather in the next few days and I must admit I got stuck, but most of the others struggled too. I should have stayed in Evans's wheel," the Frenchman said.
While Contador's gain was mostly psychological, Evans's profit was also mathematical.
The 2009 world champion still retains a lead of nearly two minutes over the Spaniard ahead of another tough 179-km ride to Pinerolo, including the demanding climb to the Italian ski resort of Sestriere.
"We had studied the course and we knew that this stage could be decisive. The Tour is decided everyday, there are no intermediate stages. We knew that something could happen in the Rochette descent because Cadel is a good downhiller," said the Australian's BMC team director John Lelangue.
Contador's Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis admitted the big battle in the Alps would probably be between his rider and Evans.
"Alberto wanted to try something today. He felt good. When he attacked, I told him, go ahead, they're all exhausted.
"Now Evans is very strong. If he stays with Alberto in the climbs, it's going to be hard," he said.
While the week ahead should showcase the two most impressive riders in the peloton, the day belonged to Hushovd, already winner of the second stage team time trial and the 13th stage in Lourdes.
"It was extraordinary to find myself in the finale with my team mate Ryder Hesjedal, who did a great job and my friend and countryman Boasson-Hagen. It was like the Norwegian championship," he said.