Armstrong all but concedes Tour title to teammate
July 19, 2009
VERBIER, Switzerland – Lance Armstrong all but conceded the Tour de France on Sunday to his teammate and rival Alberto Contador after the Spaniard blew away the pack and seized the yellow jersey as the race entered the Alps.
“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.”
The seven-time Tour champion moved up from fourth to second in the standings but lost time to his Astana teammate, whom he now trails by 1 minute, 37 seconds.
Contador, the 2007 Tour champ, basked in the support from the Texan.
“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.
The 26-year-old Spaniard broke away from other pre-race favorites with 3.5 miles left in the 128.9-mile ride from Pontarlier, France to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier – and he kept extending his lead to the finish.
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“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 came into Sunday’s stage in third place overall, 6 seconds behind Rinaldo Nocentini, who had led the race for eight days. Contador finished in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 58 seconds.
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.
Armstrong, who had entered the day fourth overall and 8 seconds behind Nocentini, finished ninth, 1:35 behind his teammate.
Bradley Wiggins of Britain climbed from sixth place to third, 1:46 adrift of the Spaniard.
Armstrong’s rivalry with Contador, on ice during last week’s mostly flat stages, was set to re-ignite 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 5.5-mile 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 4:40 by the 78-mile mark – before the peloton gradually started closing in.
Armstrong hugged Contador’s rear wheel as the climb began, but didn’t try to keep up when the Spaniard burst ahead of the small group they were in 3.5 miles from the finish.
The Texan at times rose out of his bike saddle during the final climb with his jersey open and his necklace swinging left and right. Contador, alone with 2.3 kilometers to go, angrily swatted back some fans who were running beside him on the climb.
Riders get a rest day on 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 in Paris.