Armstrong eyes 2010 Tour with American-backed team

BOURG-SAINT-MAURICE: Lance Armstrong has already achieved a victory at this year's Tour de France.

Five days before the race ends on the Champs-Elysees, the Texan has without question proven he is still a potential Tour winner and has found a new sponsor for his team next year.

Following a difficult first Alpine stage last week, where he lost 1 minute, 35 seconds to his Astana teammate and race leader Alberto Contador, Armstrong rose from his ashes Tuesday with an acceleration reminiscent of his heyday — when he won in seven consecutive years between 1999 and 2005 before deciding to retire.

Armstrong's impressive run during the 16th stage allowed him to retain second place overall, 1:37 behind Contador, and to dream of even better days.

The 37-year-old, back in the saddle this year with the Kazakh-funded Astana team, was so happy with his aging legs' performance that he suggested he could still contend for the leader's yellow jersey if Contador has a "bad day."

"If there was a massive shake-up and something happened, then I'd have to be strong — to represent the interests of the team," Armstrong said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. "But I don't think that's going to happen.

"If he were to have a bad day, I think I could cover the moves for the team. But I don't think he's going to have a bad day."

Even if the three-week race is far from over — with a third and last Alpine stage featuring five climbs on Wednesday, a time-trial the day after and the dreadful ascent to the Mont Ventoux scheduled on the penultimate stage — Contador seems so strong this year that an eighth win for Armstrong in cycling's showcase event is unlikely.

But next year?

Armstrong confirmed Tuesday that he will ride the Tour in 2010 and announced that he found a new American sponsor to back his team next season. He said he will provide details Thursday and there is a strong possibility that his old friend Johan Bruyneel — Astana's current manager — will join him to launch a new team. Contador is expected to join another squad.

According to that scenario, Armstrong, who broke his collarbone in March in a crash that temporarily derailed his preparation for the Tour, would get rid of Contador and could build a team fully devoted to his ambitions. He also believes that after a long period away from competition, another year under his belt could help him get his optimum race conditioning back.

"I can certainly look to the season and assess the preparation, the races I chose — obviously avoiding the crash would have helped," Armstrong said when asked whether he could have been in a better position overall. "All of those things you could look at now. But that's pointless. I look at them this winter, and for next year I'll try to make some adjustments."

One of the oldest riders in the peloton, Armstrong showed during Tuesday's second Alpine stage that he still has the capacity to accelerate.

As Contador tried to keep pace with two attackers on the final climb, Armstrong lagged. Yet after dropping at least 35 seconds, he surged back to recover the lost ground.

"I realized the race was basically going away from us," he said. "So, I had no choice other than trying to make the cross. So I waited until we had a steeper section, and then I got away with an acceleration."

Armstrong added he was feeling better on his bike than he did during Sunday's entree into the Alps, when Contador crushed him and the entire pack on the ride up to the Swiss ski station of Verbier.

"I felt a lot better than Verbier. But I've made some changes to my position yesterday, I raised the seat height. So in general I was pedalling better today than Sunday."

Contador was impressed, but not surprised.

"It's easy to explain — he's a very great rider," said Contador, who leads his Astana teammate by 1:37. "He was in the past, and he showed it once again."

Contador and Armstrong finished in a small group of race leaders behind stage winner Mikel Astarloza. The route from Martigny, Switzerland, to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, featured the highest peak this year — the snowcapped Grand-Saint-Bernard pass on the Swiss-Italian border, at 8,113 feet, and its sister the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass, on the Italian-French border.

Wednesday's 17th stage features what some riders fear is the toughest Alpine route this year — a 105-mile ride from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand marked by five tough climbs and another downhill finish.