Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Contador Defends, Armstrong Impresses

By Cathy Mehl

Team Astana produced a perfect defense of the maillot jaune on Tuesday’s second stage in the high Alps, keeping Alberto Contador at the top of the general classification, maintaining his gap of 1:37 to teammate Lance Armstrong. Setting an even tempo on each of the day’s two climbs, Gregory Rast, Dmitriy Muravyev, Yaroslav Popovych, Sergio Paulinho, and Haimar Zubeldia tapped out a rhythm to keep the pace high enough to distance many riders but retain as many members of the team next to Contador for as long as possible. Part of a day-long break, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Mikel Astarloza attacked with 2km to go and flew solo to the line in his first career stage win. Although a winner of the overall in the Tour Down Under, Astarloza had never crossed the line first in a race until today’s stage and his celebration reflected pure joy and happiness on the line. Taking the sprint six-seconds behind him was Sandy Casar (FdJ) in second, followed by Pierrick Fedrigo (BBOX Bouygues Telecom) for 3rd. Contador’s group rolled in almost one-minute later with most of the favorites aboard; most notably missing was Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) who dropped another four minutes in the standings, his chances of a Tour victory definitely evaporating in the afternoon's heat.

The peloton of 162 riders began their day in Switzerland, quickly crossed into Italy before ending up back in France at the day’s end. With the first climb coming from the gun, a break of 21 riders went away immediately that included Vladimir Karpets (Katusha), Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo), KOM-leader Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Astarloza, Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) and others. Many teams were represented in the break with Karpets the highest placed rider on GC at almost six-minutes behind Contador. Pellizotti initiated an attack on the break and was followed by Karpets. The duo rode away from the breakaway group with the Italian rider collecting more KOM points along the way, securing his lead in the polka dot jersey competition.

On the slopes of the second climb of Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard, Saxo Bank sent two riders up front to drive the pace and set up an opportunity for Andy and Frank Schleck to attack the yellow jersey. Their pace paired down the favorites, splitting the group and distancing Armstrong, Evans and others, but Contador held fast and was accompanied by teammate Andreas Klöden. Still in the group were Bradley Wiggins (Garmin) and Vicenzo Nibali (Liquigas) too. A gap of 40-seconds opened up behind Contador’s group, but soon enough a lone figure was seen bridging across in a solid display of power, and it was none other than seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, making the move to join his teammates Contador and Klöden.

After the stage Armstrong was asked about his strong effort to bridge across to Contador’s group: “Yeah, I’d sort of been left out by the acceleration of the group, caught by surprise and we had Alberto and Andreas there. There wasn’t much I could do so I sat with a few guys. Fortunately some of them were riding a pretty good tempo, keeping it close. But I realized the race was going up the road so I figured I’d give it a shot. I didn’t expect to make it across as quickly as I did but it felt good. The Petit Saint-Bernard isn’t that steep so you have to find the moment. When it’s kind of rolling along at 6% you have to wait until it’s at 7 or 8% before you can make an acceleration, otherwise all the other guys follow you. So I was just looking for a bit of steep road.”

Asked if his efforts on the day made him feel that the “old” Lance was back, Armstrong replied, “That acceleration felt a little bit like it but I still maintain I can’t accelerate like these young kids can now. We’ll see tomorrow. Tomorrow will be an up and down day and probably a day of attrition. Hopefully I’ll be there.” After the good form he displayed in bridging across to his teammates, we're betting Lance will be there once again.

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