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.
Contador 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.