Lance Armstrong was right when he predicted that Alberto Contador, his teammate and greatest rival on this year’s Tour de France, would attack in the first mountain stage and the Texan, as he expected, was unable to keep up with the Spaniard’s pace, dropping to third overall.
The 26-year-old Contador, regarded as the best climber in the world, seized his first opportunity on his favorite ground to leapfrog Armstrong by two seconds in the overall standings, making his move in the final ascent of Friday’s grueling stage.
Contador, winner of the 2007 Tour, crossed the finish line in ninth position behind a group of breakaway riders, 21 seconds before all the other race contenders, including Armstrong.
Four years after the last of his seven victories on the Tour, Armstrong showed his doubters he still has the ability to stay with the best guys in big climbs, but he was unable to follow when Contador launched his bold attack about 2km from the finish line.
During his reign on the race between 1999 and 2005, Armstrong always used the first hilltop finish to show his superiority, knowing that it was then easier to control the race.
“I didn’t expect a demonstration like, you know, some of the other years on the first climb days,” the 37-year-old Texan said.
Brice Feillu of France burst out of a breakaway group for a solo victory in the longest stage of this year’s race, a 224km trek from Barcelona to the Andorran ski resort of Arcalis.
Contador is now second overall, six seconds behind Italy’s Rinaldo Nocentini, who captured the yellow jersey.
Contador’s Astana team worked hard in the last ascent, setting the pace in the favorites group to prevent other riders trying their luck.
“We didn’t have a plan to attack, our plan was to maintain our collective strength first and then to wait for attacks from the others,” Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said.
Contador followed the orders and was intelligent enough to avoid a lese-majesty crime that could have put him in a delicate situation within his team. He didn’t directly attack Armstrong, but responded to a move ignited by Australian Cadel Evans to outrun all the main contenders.
Armstrong, who didn’t preview the Pyrenean stages this year — prioritizing the Alps — may have some unsuspected trumps in store to try and win an eighth Tour de France. He has already said that the last week of the race would be crucial with its four mountain stages, including a finish at the intimidating Mont Ventoux on the penultimate day. After more than six hours in the saddle on Friday, the Texan seemed unfazed by Contador’s display.
“It was a fine day. I don’t feel as knackered as I thought I would be. Overall, we’re fine,” Armstrong said.
However, Contador’s impressive burst of speed augurs well for the Spaniard, who refuses to say he is now the clear leader in his team.
“I’m really tired of the question about leadership at Astana. Let’s just watch the Tour and see what unfolds and hopefully it will be clear by the end of the race,” he said.
Other race contenders were hampered by the strong head wind in their quest to derail Astana’s supremacy. They stayed cautiously behind Armstrong and Contador’s teammates in the last ascent and Evans — 18th overall, 3 minutes, 7 seconds behind Nocentini — was the only one to attack.
Among other contenders, Andy Schleck is ninth, lagging 1 minute, 49 seconds behind Nocentini and defending champion Carlos Sastre is 15th, 2 minutes, 52 seconds back.