Tue, Jul 14, 2009 - Page 19 News List

LE TOUR FRANCE: Armstrong admits to Astana tensions

TOUR DE FORCE Rinaldo Nocentini retained the yellow jersey after Pierrick Fedrigo won the stage, but Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong remain hot on his heels

AP , TARBES, FRANCE

The peloton rides past a poppy field during the ninth stage of the Tour de France between Saint Gaudens and Tarbes, France, on Sunday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Lance Armstrong continued playing mind games with his younger rival and teammate Alberto Contador on Sunday, hinting that he might be the strongest rider this year on the Tour and admitting for the first time that some tensions have emerged in the Astana team.

With the race’s toughest stages still to come, the 37-year-old Texan has decided to apply the pressure to his Spanish teammate and to show he is still in control, despite trailing Contador by a fistful of seconds overall.

After Sunday’s ninth stage down out of the Pyrenees, Armstrong is third overall — a solid result for a man coming back to competition after nearly four years in retirement. But the seven-time Tour champion wants more and has settled an appointment with second-placed Contador in the Alps.

“There’s not going to be a lot of change until Verbier,” Armstrong said, referring to the grueling stage 15 between Pontarlier and Verbier, Switzerland. “We’ll have more moments there when we’ll see who’s truly the strongest.”

Despite losing 21 seconds to Contador at the first hilltop finish of the Tour on Friday in the Andorran ski resort of Arcalis, Armstrong seems convinced he can beat his Astana teammate in his quest for an eighth Tour de France triumph. Armstrong, who has meticulously previewed all the Alpine stages, even stated that he decided to let Contador go to favor his team interests when the Spaniard made his dazzling move in Arcalis.

“I wouldn’t say that I could have easily followed, because it was an impressive attack,” Armstrong said. “I probably could have gone, but I didn’t see it coming and it wouldn’t be correct for me to go across. So, I waited for the other guys. I expected them to be able to pull it back and they didn’t, but that’s life, that’s cycling and I had to do the right thing.”

Armstrong and close friend and Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said Contador went against the team’s strategy when he attacked.

“The honest truth is that there is a little tension,” Armstrong said on France-2 television on Sunday in the clearest indication so far that teamwork may be taking a back seat to individual ambitions. “Contador is strong and he is very ambitious.”

The 26-year-old Contador has won all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain — a feat accomplished by only five riders. Until now, the Spaniard has been careful not to speak too much about his ambitions, preferring to answer on the saddle.

“We knew that the Pyrenees were going to be the softest mountains on this Tour,” Contador said. “Now I want to rest tomorrow and to stay calm during the first five days of next week, before thinking about the next hilltop finish in Verbier.”

With the Alps, a final individual time trial and the dreaded Mont Ventoux in the penultimate stage, the last week of the Tour will be crucial. Armstrong hopes to find his top form by then.

“That’s my plan. I hope so. We’ll see. There’s no guarantees — I hope so,” Armstrong said.

Bruyneel, the man behind Armstrong’s seven victories on the Tour, maintains that Armstrong and Contador both have a status of “protected rider” in his team, but the Astana manager is expected to favor his friend over Contador if he has to choose.

“If there’s a situation where the team tells us to be in front, it’s windy or it’s hilly, and I make a selection, then I’ll do it, but I’m only going to follow the team orders,” Armstrong said.

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