Armstrong stays in 3rd place, eyes another Tour

TARBES: With the Pyrenees behind him but the toughest rides still to come, Lance Armstrong is already talking about another run next year in the Tour de France.

The 37-year-old Texan, coming out of 3 1/2 years of retirement, remained in third place after Sunday's ninth stage. Astana teammate Alberto Contador stayed in second place with about one-third of the race over and Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy held the yellow jersey a third straight day.

Armstrong rode deliberately during the 100-mile leg that was won by France's Pierrick Fedrigo and took cyclists from Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes and through the Roman Catholic shrine town of Lourdes.

"Today was pretty controlled, I thought, although it's never easy," Armstrong said. "It was very hot; the tempo was pretty regular ... We (Astana) just sat there and kind of rode our race."

The seven-time champion's appetite for competition clearly is not satisfied. After the day's racing, he was asked on French television if this would be his last year in cycling's premier race.

"Probably not," he said. "Maybe one more Tour."

Armstrong, who is riding for Astana without salary this year, has previously hinted he may launch his own team next season. When Astana was hit by financial trouble this year and faced the prospect of being thrown out of the ProTour, Armstrong said he could take over the team with the backing of U.S. sponsors.

He now seems a lot further along from his remarks last year when he said the thrust of his return to the Tour and cycling was to promote awareness about cancer, which almost took his life.

Armstrong's legs have proved resilient and his racing savvy impressive. He also has responded to the challenge from one of the sport's brightest lights — Contador, the 2007 Tour winner. Their rivalry within Astana has now burst into the open.

"The honest truth is that there is a little tension," Armstrong said in his most explicit comments yet that teamwork may be taking a back seat to individual ambitions.

Contador has skirted the issue. On Saturday, he grumbled about the repeated questions concerning which rider was the team leader. In a statement from his spokesman Sunday, he did not mention Armstrong or team dissent.

Contador and Armstrong remained second and third for the third day in a row. Contador is six seconds behind Nocentini and Armstrong is eight seconds back.

Fedrigo and Italy's Franco Pellizotti kept the lead for most of the stage after surging in front with a bunch of breakaway riders before the 12-mile mark. They crossed the Tourmalet Pass more than five minutes ahead of the peloton. They held on despite 42 miles remaining between the peak and the finish.

The main contenders were happy to let them go — Pellizotti was 15:23 off the race lead and Fedrigo 40:17 behind overall as the stage began.

Levi Leipheimer of the United States follows Armstrong in the standings, 39 seconds behind Nocentini, giving their Kazakh squad the second, third and fourth spots.

Among other favorites, Christian Vande Velde of the U.S. is eighth, 1:24 behind; Andy Schleck of Luxembourg is 1:49 back in ninth; defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain is 2:52 back in 16th; and Cadel Evans of Australia is 3:07 back in 18th place.

Armstrong predicts the next shakeout will come in Stage 15, when riders head from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, featuring an uphill finish.

"Now we're going to have three or four days that probably won't change the classification," he said. "I think all of the favorites are considering that Verbier is the next big test."

The three-week Tour has its first rest day Monday. It then cuts a swathe from central to northeast France in the second week before entering the Alps in the final week before the July 26 finish in Paris. The turning point could come on the next-to-last race day up the fabled Mont Ventoux, which Armstrong has called the toughest climb in France.

"I think this race is going to get a lot harder, and our team won't look the same or feel the same as it does now," he said. "It's still too close."

"Honestly, if I was Cadel Evans, or Andy Schleck, or Carlos Sastre, I would be waiting," he added. "I would wait for my moment in the Alps, on Ventoux, whatever, and I would stick it in as hard as I could. I would just pull the knife out and go."