Armstrong admits superiority of Contador
VERBIER: When Alberto Contador launched his bold attack in the final ascent, it was reminiscent of Lance Armstrong's golden years.
The fast pedaling was the same, the determination was the same, but it was a different rider on the saddle - the American's Spanish teammate, already one of the sport's greatest at the age of 26.
Contador dominated all other Tour contenders on Sunday's first Alpine stage from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, with a move ignited less than six kilometers from the finish line that gave him the leader's yellow jersey he wanted more than anything else.
As he already did it last week in the Pyrenees, the 2007 Tour winner showed he has no rival in the mountains and took a serious option on a second victory in cycling's showcase event.
"Lance Armstrong was my idol, but dropping him today wasn't important - he was just like any other rider ... It's an honour for me to have him working for me," the new "boss" of the Tour said after his triumph.
During his seven-year reign on the race from 1999 and 2005, Armstrong always used hilltop finishes to stamp his domination. This time the Texan was unable to follow the insane pace imposed by Contador, whose legs are 11 years fresher than Armstrong's.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy to be his domestique," a fatalistic Armstrong said. "I'm proud of him." Last week in the Pyrenees, Armstrong criticised Contador following an attack which allowed the Spaniard to leapfrog him. The Texan then accused his teammate on the Astana squad of riding against its strategy and even hinted that he could have followed him if he had really wanted to.
It was a different story after the final, 8.8-kilometer (5.5-mile) ascent to Verbier, where Armstrong fully understood that he couldn't compete. The cancer survivor, back on the Tour four years after his last victory, accepted his chance of victory is minimal.
"Yeah, it will be hard," Armstrong said when asked if his chances to win the race were over. "A day like this really shows who's the best, and I wasn't on par with what's required to win the Tour. So for me, that's the reality, that's not devastating news or anything." Armstrong moved up to second place in the standings after the 15th stage, but lost precious time to Contador, who took control of the race as he ended Rinaldo Nocentini's eight-day run in the overall lead. Armstrong trails Contador by 1 minute, 37 seconds in the overall standings. Former track cycling specialist Bradley Wiggins climbed from sixth place to third, 1:46 back.
Even if Armstrong conceded Contador's superiority, his pride has not been completely washed up. Just a few minutes after crossing the line, his all-consuming ambition reappeared when he hinted that he could maybe win another Tour next year.
"I think being out for four years, and being one of the older guys out here, there might be people out there that expect me to ride like I did in 2004, 2005 - that's not reality," Armstrong said. "If I do another year, and I get a season under my belt, maybe we get that race condition back." "But right now, I don't have it," added Armstrong, who finished ninth, 1 minute, 35 seconds after the Spaniard.
Armstrong has previously said he may launch his own team next season, while Contador is likely to quit Astana for another team.
Contador, one of only five riders to have triumphed in the three Grands Tours - France, Spain and Italy - seems so strong that only an accident could deprive him of victory. Or maybe a bad day like the one he experienced earlier this season on the Paris-Nice race that cost him a victory which was reaching out to him.
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg was second, 43 seconds back on the short but steep ascent to Verbier, while defending champion Carlos Sastre and two-time runner-up Cadel Evans lost more time.
Schleck is now 5th overall, 2 minutes, 26 seconds back. Sastre lags in 11th position, 3:52 behind, and Evans is 4:27 off the pace.
"Today we saw that Alberto was the strongest - he took off like a rocket and I couldn't catch him," Schleck said. "I tried to follow when he attacked, but I saw I wasn't getting any closer.
After that I tried to cut my losses and keep the rest behind me." Armstrong's rivalry with Contador, on ice during last week's mostly flat stages, was set to re-ignite in Verbier.
Contador said Sunday's result left no doubt about who should be considered the Astana team leader.
"The differences now are pretty big, and the team's bet should now be me, no?" Contador said. "I'm sure my teammates are going to put in great work to back me up just like they did today." Armstrong promised to put his own goals on the back burner for the good of his team, which has three riders in the Tour Top 5 - Contador, Armstrong and fourth-placed Andreas Kloeden.
"Now it's clear that we have the strongest rider in the race.
This is a team sport, so you can't - none of us, Andreas or myself - can think about ourselves," Armstrong said. "Overall, if we play it really, really smart, we can have three guys in the top five and the guy who wins. That's a special opportunity, but you know, I think now is the time for me to put my chances aside, and focus on the team." Riders get a rest day on Monday before the two other Alpine stages, an individual time trial in Annecy on Thursday, and a ride up the feared Mont Ventoux on Saturday before the race ends in Paris on July 26.
"There's three more days that could shake things up. But that's not at the front of my mind right now," Armstrong said.