Riccardo Ricco calls the mountains "my turf," and he knows how to protect it.
The Italian showed his strength in the Pyrenees on Sunday by winning the ninth stage of the Tour de France while Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen kept the yellow jersey. This was Ricco's second stage victory in three mountain stages run so far in cycling's premier event.
Nicknamed "The Cobra," Ricco started with a sore right knee from a crash Saturday. He struck when his rivals appeared vulnerable, bolting from the pack in the steepest part of the final ascent on the 139-mile ride from Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre.
"Let's say that this is really my turf, my domain," he said. "I went all out to the finish. ... I was really fast today."
Kirchen was happy to hold the overall lead for a fourth straight day. Top contender Cadel Evans of Australia struggled to not lose ground after a crashing midway through the stage.
Ricco breezed past a few breakaway riders and finished 1 minute, 4 seconds ahead of his closest challenger, Vladimir Efimkov of Russia. The Italian was 1:17 in front of Kirchen, Evans and most of the other favorites.
Ricco is not a strong time-trial rider and was considered a long shot at the outset to win the three-week race, which ends July 27 in Paris. He said he wasn't even originally scheduled to race in the Tour and had to persuade the manager of his Saunier Duval team to let him ride.
Now, along with his Stage 6 victory Thursday in the Massif Central range, competitors are taking note.
"If Ricco rides the way he did today, he is dangerous," said Bjarne Riis, owner of Team CSC, whose top cyclists are Carlos Sastre and brothers Andy and Frank Schleck. "For us, it was just to follow (Ricco) and make sure we were in the right position."
Spain's Alejandro Valverde, another title threat, said Ricco is "someone we should all be keeping an eye on." Ricco cut his deficit to Kirchen to 2:35 from 3:52, and rose to 21st overall from 27th.
The stage took the 170 riders along seven climbs. Ricco turned on the speed on the second of two especially demanding ones _ the 8.2-mile Peyresourde pass followed by the slightly shorter Aspin pass.
In a sport beset by doping _ the latest instance was Friday's ouster of Spanish veteran Manuel Beltran _ Ricco has had to fend off suspicions. He says he has a naturally high hematocrit level, which measures the volume of red blood cells. High hematocrit levels can suggest use of the banned blood booster EPO but do not confirm it.
Ricco has had high hematocrit levels "ever since I was little," adding "I hope soon that everybody will stop speaking about that."
Kirchen, of Team Columbia, retained his six-second lead over Evans. Christian Vande Velde of the United States moved to third, 44 seconds behind Kirchen, after Germany's Stefan Schumacher lost time in the last climb and fell to fourth, 56 seconds back.
Among other expected contenders, Denis Menchov of Russia is fifth, 1:03 behind, and Valverde is sixth, 1:12 back.
Evans took a tumble in a downhill curve midway through the stage, leaving him with a bloody left elbow, thigh and knee. Silence-Lotto teammate Christophe Brandt said a bag caught in Evans' front wheel, sending the Australian over his bike.
"He was in a bit in trouble; his head was not good," Brandt said. "When you crash at this speed, you can't be good."
Blood seeped through Evans' torn racing suit and his helmet cracked. He rode alongside the car of Tour doctor Gerard Porte, who appeared to clean the wounds and apply a bandage near Evans' left shoulder.
"Cadel is bruised from the head to the leg," the team said on its Web site. "His broken crash helmet shows how brutal the fall has been."
He is expected to ride Monday for the demanding second day in the Pyrenees. The 97-mile course starts in Pau and concludes with an uphill finish at the Hautacam ski station. There are two climbs so hard they defy classification in cycling's ranking system.
Vande Velde, of the Garmin Chipotle team, called Sunday's ride a warmup for Monday.
"It will be a very hard day," he said. "It will be epic."