Andy Schleck led a daring attack in the Alps to win the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, putting him within seconds of the yellow jersey and quashing Alberto Contador's hopes of a fourth title.
France's Thomas Voeckler, in a show of grit of his own, narrowly kept the lead by muscling up a punishing final climb to limit the damage at the end of the 125-mile trek from Pinerolo, Italy, to the Galibier Serre-Chevalier ski station in France.
Contador started the stage trailing Voeckler by several minutes after a rough start to the three-week race and finished it with a dismal final climb.
"Victory is impossible now," he said. "I had a bad day. My legs didn't respond and I just hit a wall. It was a very difficult day right from the start."
Schleck began the day in fourth place and is now 15 seconds behind Voeckler. He attacked on the second of three grueling climbs and held on all the way on the fabled Galibier pass to the highest-altitude finish in the race's 108-year history.
"I told the team yesterday that I had this in mind. I wasn't going to be fourth in Paris," Schleck said. "I said I'd risk it all. ... It's my character: I'm not afraid to lose."
Standing next to Schleck, Voeckler — who has repeatedly insisted that he can't win when the race finishes Sunday in Paris — said: "You'll get it."
Frank Schleck was second Thursday, trailing his brother by 2 minutes, 7 seconds. Cadel Evans of Australia was third. Voeckler was fifth on Thursday, 2:21 behind. Frank Schleck is third overall, 1:08 back. Evans is fourth, 1:12 off the pace.
Contador was the day's biggest loser, trailing in 15th place — 3:50 behind. Overall, he trails the French leader by 4:44 in seventh place.
"Please, let me breathe," an exhausted Voeckler said at the finish, mustering the strength to raise a fist in joy once he saw he'd kept the yellow jersey. "At 2,650 meters, the oxygen is thin."
"I limited the damage," he added. "I went all out."
Schleck, the Leopard Trek team leader, came in knowing that he would need to gain time on rivals ahead of Saturday's time trial — a discipline that's not his specialty.
On Friday, the pack faces the last of three days in the Alps. It again features an uphill finish at the renowned and dreaded Alpe d'Huez.
Ahead of the stage, Contador tweeted in Spanish about "What leg pain!" awaits on three climbs so tough they defy cycling's rating climbs: Col d'Agnel, Col d'Izoard and Col du Galibier.
The pack scaled more than 37 miles of total climbs, about one-third of which had a gradient of more than 9 percent. Tour director Christian Prudhomme called the 15-mile Col d'Agnel (9,000 feet) the hardest climb in this race.
Agnel, the day's first big climb, wasn't the site of the showdown. At one point there, Contador drifted back to the race doctor.
"The start of the stage didn't get off well," he said. "I had to drop back to the medic car for an anti-inflammatory."
Andy Schleck took his chance on Col d'Izoard. After riding behind Leopard Trek teammate Stuart O'Grady, the Luxembourg rider sped from the main pack about midway up, with 13 breakaway riders ahead.
Contador moved up to the front of the pack but didn't chase. Neither did Voeckler or Evans, possibly a tactical error that could cost them victory in Paris on Sunday.