MENDE, France -- Alberto Contador sent a message Friday to Tour de France leader Andy Schleck: Here I come.
The two-time Tour champion dropped the Luxembourg rider on the steep final climb of the 12th stage, the Spaniard's first bold attack of the race gaining him crucial seconds in the title chase.
Joaquin Rodriguez, a Spaniard with the Katusha team, got stage-win glory by edging Contador in a two-man sprint at the finish of the 131-mile course from Bourg-de-Peage to Mende.
Contador was content to cut 10 precious seconds from his deficit to Schleck and was 31 seconds behind after the stage. Samuel Sanchez of Spain was a distant third, 2 minutes, 45 seconds.
The race has shaped up as a duel between Contador and Schleck, who are seemingly unparalleled in the climbs -- and the Pyrenees await as the arena where their rivalry will play out beginning Sunday.
Schleck knows that Contador is stronger in the time trial and wants to have the biggest lead possible before the final race against the clock on the eve of the July 25 finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Friday's stage finish was destined for drama. In the final miles, the pack scaled the La Croix Neuve pass, which ascends nearly two miles at an average gradient of more than 10 percent.
Contador and Rodriguez burst out of the pack near the midpoint of that steep final climb, dusting Schleck and overtaking several breakaway riders. Rodriguez then outsprinted Contador in the last few hundred yards to get his first stage win in his first Tour.
Both were given a time of 4 hours, 58 minutes, 26 seconds, while Contador's Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov was third, four seconds back. Schleck, the Saxo Bank team leader, was fifth, while Sanchez crossed in sixth.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, who has ruled himself out of contention in his final Tour, lost time to the leader for a third straight day -- crossing in 57th place, 3:35 back of Rodriguez. He's 32nd overall, 21:16 behind Schleck. Armstrong didn't speak to reporters after the stage.
Vinokourov and three other breakaway riders were the first at the foot of the climb. Initially, he and Belarus rider Vasil Kiryienka slugged it out before the Kazakh star rode out alone, seeking a stage win in his first Tour since being kicked out of the 2007 race for blood doping and serving a two-year suspension.
Then with just over a mile to go, Contador caught Schleck off-guard by racing out wide and mustering a burst of speed. As the Spaniard rose up out of his saddle, his bike rocking side to side, Schleck couldn't or wouldn't match the acceleration, staying seated and pedaling in a steady rhythm.
"I saw that a rider came out and Andy didn't respond," Contador said. "He's a rather ambitious rider, and that could be a symptom of weakness."
Contador and Rodriguez quickly overtook Vinokourov and battled it out to the end.
"I knew this was going to be a really tough climb," Schleck said of La Croix Neuve. "I don't like this climb, it doesn't fit me. It's short and steep and you have to be explosive -- not right for the kind of rider that I am.
"I'm happy I lost only 10 seconds in the end. I was not so surprised I couldn't stay with him in this climb," he said.
Contador had hoped to gain more time on Schleck but was satisfied to seize a mental edge.
"I like this climb a lot. I felt good. I attacked too late, and I didn't know what state Andy was in," Contador said. "I was able to get a few seconds, it's good -- it shows I'm in form.
"I didn't know whether to go for it or not, I was on Andy's wheel and saw him looking weak for a moment and decided to go for it. It's an important psychological blow," he said.
Tour organizers said U.S. sprint specialist Tyler Farrar of the Garmin-Transitions team dropped out of the race. He had been riding with a broken left wrist from one of numerous crashes on rain-slicked roads in Stage 2.
"You never want to leave any race but especially the Tour," said Farrar, who became the third Garmin rider to quit the race this year. "It's the event we work for all year. I've been suffering since my crash on Stage 2 and today, the pain was just too much.
"I couldn't push through," he said.
Saturday's 13th stage takes riders on a 121.8-mile run from Rodez to Revel that features five low-level climbs. Sunday marks the race's entree into the Pyrenees -- where riders will be challenged by four punishing stages.
Schleck says he's not worried about losing time to Contador.
"I know my best day will come in the Pyrenees," he said. "I'm ready to fight."