Lance Armstrong is trying not to let his rivalry with Alberto Contador distract him and the rest of the Astana team at the Tour de France.
On Saturday, the status quo between Contador and Armstrong prevailed as Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain won the eighth stage in the Pyrenees, while Italy’s Rinaldo Nocentini retained the yellow jersey.
Contador eclipsed the seven-time Tour champion Armstrong a day earlier in the first Pyrenean ride, and trails the Italian, who is not seen as an overall title threat, by six seconds. Armstrong is eight seconds back.
The Astana team, facing new questions about whether teamwork still trumps its brewing two-man rivalry, on Friday had talks on the team bus about the breakaway by Contador a day earlier.
“What’s said in the bus, stays in the bus,” said team sporting director Johan Bruyneel, confirming the breakaway was discussed but refusing to offer details to reporters.
Before the ride on Saturday, when Versus’ Frankie Andreu asked whether Astana was more divided now, after Contador’s breakaway, Armstrong dodged the issue.
“I’m going to refuse to comment on that,” Armstrong said. “At the end of the day, we’re all professionals — and even if there were some hurt feelings, we’re going to do our job.”
Armstrong didn’t speak to reporters after Saturday’s stage, a 176.5km trek along three big climbs from the Pyrenean principality of Andorra to Saint-Girons, France.
Armstrong posted on Twitter: “St8 done. Tough but not 2 challenging. Had anti-doping control AGAIN.”
Cycling’s governing body UCI and France’s anti-doping agency have stepped up urine and blood tests this year in an effort to root out cheats who have marred cycling’s premiere race in recent years. That means top performers like Armstrong face more checks.
Contador, in a statement from his spokesman, didn’t make any mention of relations within the team, and simply credited a strong effort from Astana riders to beat back rivals’ attacks on Saturday.
Contador is already one of cycling’s top riders, having won all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain — a feat accomplished only by five riders.
The race has shaped up as a two-man battle between the two Astana stars so far primarily because the other pre-race favorites lost key time in time trials and are trailing badly.
In order to get back into contention, the rivals tried to attack during the Pyrenees — the first big mountain challenges of the three-week race. So far, they’ve had no success against Astana.
The first salvo on Saturday came from two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans, who burst out of the peloton on the first of the day’s three climbs — the Category 1 Envalira Pass — at the 23.5km mark. He and others built a lead on the pack of about two minutes but the Australian was reeled in after about 63km.
On the Agnes pass, the day’s last big climb, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg led the attack — but he too couldn’t shake the Astana train.
Nocentini almost lost his yellow jersey when the main race favorites — including Armstrong and Contador — left him behind in the last of the climbs. He credited an escort from his AG2R La Mondiale teammate Stephane Goubert for helping him catch up.
Astana holds four of the top six spots. Levi Leipheimer of the US is 39 seconds off the pace in fourth, while Andreas Kloeden is sixth, 54 seconds behind.
Sanchez led a four-person breakaway and crossed the finish line just ahead of France’s Sandy Casar and Mikel Astarloza of Spain.
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