When Lance Armstrong spoke in March about his teammate and leading rival Alberto Contador lacking experience, the veteran American was accused of being unsportsmanlike.
Maybe he was right.
The 37-year-old Texan showed that age wasn’t everything when he surged to the front in the key breakaway during Monday’s third stage of the Tour de France, while Contador and the other favorites were trapped in the peloton.
Armstrong’s astute move earned him valuable time and he moved to third place overall while Contador dropped to fourth, 19 seconds behind him.
Armstrong now has a small chance to take the yellow leader’s jersey from Fabian Cancellara as early as Tuesday’s 39km team time trial at Montpellier.
“Never say never,” Armstrong said when asked about the possibility of putting on the coveted jersey for the 84th time in his career, four years after his record seventh Tour victory.
Overall, he trails Cancellara by 40 seconds — a tough deficit to erase in the team time trial.
The most likely scenario is that Cancellara will keep his first place after the team ride.
Among other Tour favorites, two-time runner up Cadel Evans slipped to eighth place overall, 1 minute, 4 seconds behind Cancellara.
Andy Schleck is 24th at 1:41, and defending champion Carlos Sastre of Spain is 26th, 1:47 back.
Armstrong is not in a hurry in this race.
He has already said the third week, featuring a long time trial, three mountain stages, and a finish up the daunting Mont Ventoux, would be very hard.
The cancer survivor has got plenty of time to move up to first place and can ride with serenity now that he leads Contador, who had a 22 second-cushion over Armstrong before Monday’s epic stage won by king of sprint Mark Cavendish.
The Briton claimed his second consecutive Tour stage victory and his sixth overall, ahead of Norway’s Thor Hushovd and Cyril Lemoine of France after completing the 196.5km trek between Marseille and La Grande-Motte in 5 hours, 1 minute, 24 seconds.
Under a blistering sun, Armstrong took full advantage of a “bordure,” also called an echelon, ignited 30km from the finish line by the Columbia team who were chasing four breakaway riders.
When the wind is strong and blowing sideways, it can split the peloton into groups which are no longer sheltered in the pack. They lose contact, find themselves on the more exposed side of the road and can lose considerable time. That is exactly what happened when Columbia pumped up the tempo.
Only 29 riders including Armstrong, Cancellara and two other Astana teammates — Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia — got on the right train.
“Whenever you see a team lined up at the front like that, you have to pay attention,” Armstrong said, referring to Columbia. “You know what the wind’s doing, and you see that a turn’s coming up, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you have to go to the front.”
Astana manager Johan Bruyneel, a close friend of Armstrong, explained that his strategy was to deliver a blow to the favorites and their teams by forcing them to work to reduce the gap.
“And I thought it would be a good situation if after the team time trial Cancellara could stay in the yellow jersey,” Bruyneel said. “Because it will definitely help us a lot in the days after the team time trial.”