Sunday, July 12, 2009

Is the real battle Armstrong v. Contador?

Lance Armstrong conceded on French television Sunday that “there’s a little tension” between himself and Astana teammate Alberto Contador.

The seven-time Tour champion sits in third overall, eight seconds behind Rinaldo Nocentin (Ag2r), who is not considered a yellow jersey contender. Contador, the 2007 champion, is in the runner-up spot at six seconds back.

As their rivals look for ways to close deficits incurred in a thrilling first week, it seems the real battle for supremacy may be taking place in one team.

Last week, Armstrong took advantage of a wind-triggered split on the third stage to distance many of the other favorites, Contador among them, by 41 seconds.

The following day's team time trial, won by Astana, saw Armstrong move up to second place overall, only 0.22 second behind Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank).

But on the first day in the high mountains on Friday, Contador got his own back.

As Frenchman Brice Feillu raced to victory at Arcalis ski station, Contador attacked out of a group containing Armstrong to finish 19 seconds ahead of the American.

It put the Spaniard into second place overall, and back in the spotlight.

"Alberto is strong, and he's very ambitious,” Armstrong said on French TV.

Should Contador gave a repeat performance in the upcoming climbing stages and prove himself the strongest man in the race, Armstrong said, "There's nothing I can do about that. I have to follow the rules.”

In theory, that would mean Armstrong sitting back, as he did at Arcalis — following the wheels and attacking himself only if Astana’s rivals for the yellow jersey try to counter a move by Contador.

In practice, however, Armstrong may yet have ambitions of his own. He told reporters earlier that a "very difficult" six-day spell on the horizon would show who deserved to be given the team's full support.

"We'll have more moments,” he said. “We'll see who's truly the strongest.”

In his subsequent TV interview he elaborated: "The Tour is only 25 percent done. Maybe we're halfway done, but in terms of selection we're only 25 percent done."

And if he is among those not selected? There’s always next year. Asked on French television whether this would be his last participation at the Tour, Armstrong replied: "Probably not."

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