Lance Armstrong all but conceded on Sunday that he cannot beat teammate Alberto Contador at the Tour de France, after the Spanish star blew away the pack and seized the yellow jersey as the race entered the Alps.
Armstrong moved up to second place in the standings after the 15th stage, but lost time to his Astana teammate, who took control of the race as he ended Rinaldo Nocentini’s eight-day run in the overall lead.
Armstrong — who earlier in the race had cited tension within the team amid a rivalry with Contador — conceded he would now play a role of support rider for the Spaniard.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to be a domestique,” Armstrong said, using French cycling jargon for a backup rider. “I’m proud of him.”
Contador basked in the support from the seven-time Tour champion.
“Lance Armstrong was my idol, but dropping him today wasn’t important — he was just like any other rider ... It’s an honor for me to have him working for me,” Contador told reporters through a translator. “He’s a great professional.”
The 26-year-old Spaniard broke away from the other pre-race favorites with 5.6km left in the 207.5km ride from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier — and he kept extending his lead through to the finish.
“I’m very happy with this result. The climb wasn’t that long, but I wanted to make a difference,” said Contador, who looked fresh and tapped his chest as he finished. “I gave the maximum.”
Contador — the 2007 Tour winner — came into Sunday’s stage in third place overall, 6 seconds behind Nocentini. Contador finished in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 58 seconds — and the Italian trailed 2 minutes, 36 seconds back.
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg was second, 43 seconds back, and Vincenzo Nibali of Italy was third, 1 minute, 3 seconds back.
Armstrong, who had entered the day fourth overall and eight seconds behind Nocentini, finished ninth, 1 minute, 35 seconds after the Spaniard.
More importantly, the Texan seven-time Tour champion trails Contador by 1 minute, 37 seconds in the overall standings. Bradley Wiggins of Britain climbed from sixth place to third, 1 minute, 46 seconds adrift of the Spaniard.
Armstrong’s rivalry with Contador, on ice during last week’s mostly flat stages, was set to reignite in Verbier.
Contador said Sunday’s result left no doubt about who should be considered the Astana team leader.
“The differences now are pretty big and the team’s bet should now be me, no?” Contador said. “I’m sure my teammates are going to put in great work to back me up, just like they did today.”
Armstrong conceded that Contador had been superior.
“I think when Alberto went, he showed he’s the best rider in the race, certainly the best climber ... Hats off to him,” Armstrong said.
The American vowed that he would not go against the interests of the team by attacking Contador later in the race.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “There’s been a lot of drama between Alberto and me ... but at the end of the day, we sit as a team.”
Sunday’s ride was the first of three stages in the Alps and the only one of those with an uphill finish. The 8.8km ascent from the valley up to Verbier was the first time that the Tour has visited the ski resort.
Ten breakaway riders set the pace from early on in the stage and chiseled out a maximum gap of 4 minutes, 40 seconds by the 125km mark — before the peloton gradually started closing in.
Armstrong hugged Contador’s rear wheel as the climb began, but the Spaniard burst ahead of the small group they were in at around the 5.6km mark.
The Texan, during the final climb, at times rose out of his bike saddle with his jersey open and his necklace swinging left and right. Contador, alone with 2.3km to go, angrily swatted back some fans who were running beside him on the climb.
Riders get a rest day before the two other Alpine stages, an individual time trial in Annecy on Thursday, and a ride up the dreaded Mont Ventoux on Saturday.
The Tour ends on Sunday in Paris.
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