Italy's Vincenzo Nibali stamped his dominance on the Tour de France by winning the 10th stage in the Vosges mountains on Monday -- shortly after his biggest rival for the title, two-time champion Alberto Contador, crashed out due to injury.
Nibali, the Astana team leader, also regained the overall race lead from France's Tony Gallopin -- who had taken the leader's yellow jersey from the Italian a day earlier -- in the 161.5-kilometer (100-mile) trek from Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles in the eastern Vosges mountains.
With a final burst of speed in the last two kilometers (1.2 miles), Nibali overtook breakaway rider Joaquim Rodriguez. The Spaniard, heaving hard as Nibali overtook him, caught back up briefly but then the Italian accelerated brutally with 700 meters to go.
By the end, Nibali crossed 15 seconds ahead of France's Thibault Pinot in second and Spain's Alejandro Valverde in third, a further five seconds behind. The Italian recovers the yellow jersey that he wore for seven days after he won the Tour's second stage in the hills of Yorkshire in northern England
With Contador out, Nibali is now the favorite to win his first Tour. He has already won the Italian Giro and the Spanish Vuelta -- cycling's other "Grand Tours" along with the Tour de France. Overall, he leads second-placed Richie Porte of Australia by nearly 2½ minutes, with Valverde, who is third, almost 3 minutes back.
Crashes have taken a heavy toll this year.
The departure of Contador, a 31-year-old Spaniard with Tinkoff-Saxo Bank, follows that of defending champion Chris Froome of Britain who crashed out in Stage 5. Before the race began this year, Froome and Contador were seen as the top two favorites. In Stage 1, British sprinting star Mark Cavendish crashed out, too.
Contador's withdrawal means that the Tour will have a first-time winner this year. Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour champion, was the only three former Tour champions racing this year. Schleck dropped out before Stage 4 after sustaining an injury in yet another crash a day earlier.
According to his spokesman, Contador said he wasn't exactly sure what caused the crash -- which happened while he was speeding downhill at over 70 kph (about 40 mph) about halfway through the stage. Contador began the stage in ninth place overall -- 4 minutes, 8 seconds back of Gallopin.
"He explained to me just a few minutes ago that he (hit) a stone or a hole in the road or something -- and he crashed," Contador spokesman Jacinto Vidarte told The Associated Press by phone during the stage. "He couldn't do anything about it."
TV images showed thick streams of blood pouring from Contador's right knee after the crash, his hip was scraped up, and the back of his jersey torn. Team director Bjarne Riis rushed over and bandaged the knee. Team spokesman Victor Petri said that Contador would undergo X-rays to determine the extent of the damage.
Contador then sat back down on the grass bank and changed his left shoe as riders weaved through the narrow gap between him and his bicycle. After several minutes, he got back in the saddle of a new bike, and three teammates who had dropped back escorted him to try to make up lost time as the peloton pulled away up the Col du Platzerwaswel mountain pass.
The Spaniard rode for about another half-hour, clearly in pain, and finally stopped, got off, wiped his eyes and climbed into a team car.
There were crashes elsewhere.
Italian rider Michele Scarponi -- Nibali's Astana teammate -- sustained a heavy crash coming down from the penultimate climb up to Col des Chevreres. He misjudged a turn and thudded into a protective crash barrier, flipping over his bike and colliding with an adult spectator who was standing up. Scarponi was able to continue riding.
British rider Geraint Thomas also crashed near the end and continued riding with blood pouring out of his left elbow.
The stage featured four steep Category 1 climbs. The last section of the final ascent up to Belles Filles featured a punishing 20 percent gradient which, as expected, shook up the pack and gave a clearer indication of contenders for overall victory of the three-week race on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 27.
The race has its first rest day on Tuesday.