Chorges (France): Britain`s Chris Froome tightened his grip on the Tour de France yellow jersey after beating Spanish rival Alberto Contador in the 17th stage time trial on Wednesday.
Froome, taking his third stage win of the 100th edition, finished the hilly 32 km race against the clock in a time of 51min 33sec to beat former two-time champion Contador by nine seconds.
Contador`s efforts moved him up to second place overall at the expense of Dutchman Bauke Mollema but the Saxo team leader saw his deficit go from 4:25 to 4:34 a day ahead of a crucial 18th stage in the Alps.
After stepping off the podium, where he made three visits for the stage win, the yellow jersey and the best climber`s polka dot jersey, Froome said his win was unexpected.
"Visiting the podium three times was just incredible," said Froome, who was supported along the route by many fans waiving British flags.
"I`m really happy with the result from today. I wanted to hold back a little bit for the days ahead and I was actually prepared to lose a little bit of time, so I`m quite surprised I won the stage."
Coupled with the threat of rain for the late starters, many riders faced the dilemma of deciding whether to swap their habitual road race bikes for time trial machines at the summit of the day`s final climb, which was followed by a far less technical descent than the descent of the Puy-Sanieres climb at the 25.5 km mark.
Contador was one of the few favourites who opted to use his normal bike, albeit with aero bars fitted to the handlebars.
Having led Froome over the first three time checks, the Saxo team leader`s time of 51:42 -- one second faster than compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) -- looked good enough to give the Spaniard his first stage win of this year`s race.
But after Froome swapped his bike for a time trial machine just before the summit of the Cote de Reallon, the Briton powered over the remaining 12 kilometres to overhaul the 11-sec deficit he had to Contador at the summit.
Asked if he thought that made the difference, Froome said: "That was our strategy, but it was more about the gearing. It allowed me to go faster on the second half of the course and I think it was the right choice."
Having lost the stage, the only consolation for Contador`s Saxo team was seeing Roman Kreuziger finish the stage just 23sec adrift of Froome to move up to third at 4:51 overall as Dutchman Mollema flattered to deceive in a discipline known as the `race of truth`.
Mollema`s solid campaign so far had left him in second place overall overnight, albeit at 4:14 behind Froome, and had revived hopes in his native Holland of a rare podium finish in Paris.
However the Belkin team leader struggled to match the leading contenders and he lost further time from a late crash.
After narrowly escaping a crash on the final bend, barging into the barriers after badly negotiating a right-hand turn, Mollema came over the finish 2:09 behind Froome.
The same bend took a toll on Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R), who abandoned after crashing two kilometres from the finish having raced with a fractured collarbone suffered in a spill while reconnoitering the course earlier.
The 18th stage on Wednesday is a 172.5 km race beginning in Gap and featuring six climbs, including two ascensions of the legendary Alpe d`Huez, which will also host the finish.