Contador leaves Lance in dust for lead
VERBIER, Switzerland -- The Tour de France star pedaled up out of his saddle in a mountain stage, dusted his rivals, and seized the yellow jersey that he knows all too well and covets so much.
This time, it wasn't Lance Armstrong, but his teammate and one-time rival Alberto Contador, who won Sunday's 15th stage and made a case to be the Texan's successor at cycling's premier event.
After such a dominant display in which Armstrong finished in ninth place -- 1 minute, 35 seconds after Contador and among other also-rans -- he sees his chances of an eighth Tour victory fading.
"It will be hard. A day like this really shows who's the best, and I wasn't on par with what is required to win the Tour," Armstrong said. "That's the reality; that's not devastating news or anything."
He added, "I gave it everything that I had, and I wasn't the best."
As the three-week race entered the Alps, the 26-year-old Spaniard recovered the celebrated shirt that he hadn't worn since his Tour victory in 2007.
He made it clear he'll be the man to beat this year.
Race contenders knew that after a week of mainly flat stages that didn't alter the top standings much, the 128.9-mile ride from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier was critical.
Armstrong rose from fourth to second in the standings but lost time to Contador, whom he now trails by 1 minute, 37 seconds.
Now, he sees his job as serving as a "domestique" -- or support rider -- for Contador, putting an end to speculation about whether he or the Spaniard deserved the role of Astana team leader.
Ford: Contador Proves Explosive Force
Alberto Contador lived up to his billing Sunday as the top climber in the world, taking the Tour lead by 1.37. Even Lance Armstrong acknowledged he couldn't keep up, writes Bonnie D. Ford. Story »
Ten breakaway riders had set the pace from early on in the stage and chiseled out a maximum gap of 4:40 by the 78-mile mark, before the peloton gradually started closing in.
Rivals of the Astana teammates -- notably the Danish team Saxo Bank -- pressed the pace or tried to attack as the final climb loomed, but Contador held off every assault, then launched his own.
About one-third of the way up the 5.5-mile ascent to Verbier, Contador burst ahead of other pre-race favorites and kept extending his lead all the way to the finish.
"Saxo didn't play around. They hit the bottom full-gas, we saw that coming, so we were perfectly on the wheel," Armstrong said. "I think the thing to note is that Alberto responded."
Armstrong at times rose out of his saddle during the last climb, his jersey opened and his necklace bobbing left and right. Contador, riding alone in front with 1.4 miles to go, angrily swatted back some fans who were running closely beside him on the climb.
By the end, Armstrong huffed across the line in ninth place -- after riders like two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia and 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain. He had started the day fourth and 8 seconds behind Rinaldo Nocentini, the Italian whom Contador stripped of the yellow jersey.
"[Contador] is the best in the race, and he deserved to win," Armstrong said.
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Only a week earlier, Armstrong had acknowledged "tension" within Astana amid his rivalry with Contador. And in March, when Contador bungled his management of the Paris-Nice race, Armstrong said that that the Spaniard still had "a lot to learn."
The Texan, chastened, now wants to follow Contador's lead.
"This is a team sport," Armstrong said. "I think now is the time for me to put my chances aside, and focus on the team."
Contador basked in the expression of support.
"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," he told reporters through a translator.
Contador came into Sunday's stage in third place overall, 6 seconds behind Nocentini, who had led the race for eight days. The Spaniard finished in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 58 seconds.
Saxo Bank rider Andy Schleck of Luxembourg was second in the stage, 43 seconds back, and Vincenzo Nibali of Italy was third, 1:03 back. Nocentini was 2:36 off the pace.
Bradley Wiggins of Britain, who is best known as a time-trial rider but has proved his mettle in the mountains this year, climbed from sixth place to third -- 1:46 behind Contador. Wiggins splayed out on the ground to stretch after finishing the punishing stage.
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 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 5.5-mile ascent from the valley up to Verbier was the first time that the Tour has visited the ski resort.
Riders get a rest day Monday 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 Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
"Hey, [if] we ride into Paris with the yellow jersey on the team, I'm cool with that," Armstrong said. "I got seven of 'em at home."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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