Alexander Vinokourov's hopes of winning the Tour de France ended in tears when he failed to keep up with the top contenders in the ninth stage, a 159.5-km ride from Val d'Isere to Briancon.
The Kazakh rider finished three minutes and 24 seconds behind stage winner Juan Mauricio Soler of the Barloworld team, who became the first Colombian to win a Tour stage since Santiago Botero in 2002.
Pre-race favourite Vinokourov, a winner in Briancon in 2005, burst into tears when he told reporters: 'It was very difficult. I managed to stay with the favourites in the ascent of the Telegraphe but it was too hard in the Galibier.
'The team worked well, I have tried to limit the damage but it was a terrible day,' added the Kazakh, who sustained knee injuries in a crash last Thursday.
Vinokourov of the Astana team was unable to respond to the attacks by Alejandro Valverde during the most intimidating part of the ascent up the out-of-category Col du Galibier and crossed the line 02:45 after the favourites' group.
Caisse d'Epargne rider Valverde emerged as one of the serious candidates for overall victory when he ended the stage 38 seconds behind Soler in second place and just ahead of Australian Cadel Evans.
It was a good day, however, for yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen, who was in the favourites' group along with France's Christophe Moreau and Vinokourov's lieutenant, Andreas Kloeden of Germany.
'The objective is now to bring back the yellow jersey to Paris, said the Rabobank rider.
Rasmussen enjoys a lead of 2:35 over Valverde with Spaniard Iban Mayo in third place four seconds further behind. Evans is fourth 2:41 behind the Dane.
Kloeden, who is the best of the top contenders against the clock, could take control of the race in Saturday's 54-km time trial in Albi.
The German is eighth overall 03:50 behind Rasmussen.
A group of six, including Discovery Channel's Yaroslav Popovych and Vladimir Gusev, broke away on the ascent to the Col de l'Iseran, the highest point of this year's Tour at 2,770 metres.
Vinokourov dropped to the rear and asked race doctor Gerard Porte for painkillers before getting back in the bunch.
Soler surged ahead at the Plan Lachat, just before the hardest part of the ascent of the Col du Galibier.
Valverde then shook the peloton with a sudden burst of speed six km from the summit, leaving Frank Schleck and Vinokourov behind.
'It's the most beautiful day of my life. I never thought I would win a stage in the Tour de France,' said Soler.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy followed part of the stage in Tour director Christian Prudhomme's car.