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.
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.
The signal from Contador was clear: Don't forget about me.
He 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.
The three-week race veers into Italy for Wednesday's Stage 17 — a 111-mile ride from Gap to the Italian town of Pinerolo.