Three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, center, is now trailing the leader by just 3 minutes 42 seconds.


GAP, France - Alberto Contador has finally put the hammer down at the Tour de France, and now the race is really on.

Minutes behind the race leader, the defending champion surprised key rivals with a brazen attack on a relatively easy climb in the Alpine foothills in Tuesday's Stage 16, won by Thor Hushovd of Norway in a breakaway.

Contador, baring his teeth as his tires sizzled on the rain-slick roads, surged out of the pack on the mid-grade Col de Magne climb, and held on through a treacherous downhill to the finish of the 101-mile ride from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Gap.

"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 than I expected."

The unexpected surge by the Spaniard shook up the leader board at cycling's greatest race, which ends Sunday in Paris after a jaunt today into Italy, then two days in the Alps, and a time-trial Saturday in Grenoble.

Among the contenders, only Cadel Evans kept up. The Australian actually outpaced the Spanish three-time champion by 3 seconds at the end. But Contador, who had lost time with crash trouble earlier in the race - trimmed 18 seconds off his deficit to overall race leader Thomas Voeckler of France, down to 3 minutes 42 seconds.

TV today

• What: Stage 17

• When: 5 a.m. on Versus