PINEROLO, Italy (AP) — Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador had one objective as the world's hardest cycling race hit its hardest stage: attack.
The Spanish rider was 3 minutes, 15 seconds behind leader Thomas Voeckler, the Frenchman whose yellow jersey has begun to fade in the high Alps.
"If he wants to win the tour he needs to attack, he needs to attack everybody," said Contador's Saxo Bank-Sungard team manager, Bjarne Riis.
The 18th stage from Pinerolo to Col du Galibier — at 8,900 feet the highest finish in the Tour's 108-year history — stretched 125 miles and contained three "beyond category" climbs.
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme called it the single hardest stage, and top riders agreed.
"I think tomorrow is going to be the decisive stage. ... It's going to be the stage of the Tour," said Leopard-Trek rider Andy Schleck, whose advantage over Contador was down to 39 seconds entering the final four stages — exactly the margin he lost by to Contador in the 2010 Tour.
The 2,131-mile Tour has turned into one of the hardest fought races in recent years. A whopping six potential contenders were within 3:15 of each other four days from the race's end. By comparison, at the same point last year, only Contador and Schleck were that close.
Of those six remaining contenders, Riis says Australia's Cadel Evans, not Andy Schleck, "is the real threat" heading into the second of three stages in the high Alps.
Evans was 1:18 behind Voeckler, and had a nearly 2-minute gap on Contador. With both riders expected to excel Saturday in the individual time trial, it was up to Contador to unleash his unparalleled mountain climbing attacks Thursday to make up the time.
On Wednesday, Contador made repeated attempts to get away from his rivals, but was caught on each occasion. He finished in the same time as Evans, the Schleck brothers and Samuel Sanchez.
Voeckler lost 27 seconds to Evans.
Contador was not downhearted by his failure to get away.
"I felt good, and you've got to try," he said. He didn't want to talk about the stages to come.
Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway won the stage, the first of three days in the Alps, while Voeckler retained the yellow jersey, but lost time after riding off course on the final descent.
Boasson Hagen completed the 111 miles across the Alps from Gap to the Italian town of Pinerolo in 4:18. Bauke Mollema of the Netherlands was second, 40 seconds back.
Voeckler went too fast on a hairpin turn, skidded onto the shoulder of the forested Alpine road, then raced back to try to catch Contador and Sanchez after they sped by.
"It's a pity, because I saw that Contador, Evans and the Schlecks finished together. If I'd taken fewer risks, I would have finished with them," Voeckler said.
Greg Keller can be reached at http://twitter.com/Greg_Keller
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Naomi Koppel contributed to this report.