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COMMENTARY

Alberto Contador looks like a Tour de France shoo-in now

Still, expect Lance Armstrong to battle over the three days to gain a spot on the podium.

July 23, 2009|Diane Pucin

It would take something very unusual -- crash, illness -- for wraithlike Alberto Contador to lose the Tour de France now.

But that doesn't mean the next three days will be boring.

Expect Lance Armstrong to fight extra hard in today's 25-mile time trial in Annecy, France, and even more so on Saturday when the tour takes riders up the rocky, steep, brutally hot and desolate Mt. Ventoux. Armstrong probably can't win, but he can aim for the podium when the race ends Sunday in Paris.

Considering his age (37) and his three-year absence from the tour, second or third place could be considered a triumph for Armstrong. It also will be a constant push at Armstrong's back because the seven-time tour winner has decided to race again next year.

Armstrong said Tuesday that he would have an announcement today about a new American-based team in which he would be the featured rider. It is presumed his longtime collaborator, Johan Bruyneel, will be the director.

And Contador, Spain's newest star, will be on his own and should easily find a team devoted solely to his goals.

After Wednesday's stage, won by Frank Schleck of the Saxo Bank team, it seemed Contador already was riding only for himself. He nonchalantly made a climbing attack, and in the process he dropped Astana teammate Andreas Kloeden. Ultimately, Contador didn't win the stage and allowed Schleck and Schleck's brother Andy to move ahead of fellow Astana riders Armstrong and Kloeden.

It seemed, though, that Contador's move was not approved by team director Bruyneel.

Armstrong is now in fourth place, 3 minutes 55 seconds behind Contador, 1:29 behind second-place rider Andy Schleck and 30 seconds behind third-place rider Frank Schleck. Kloeden is fifth, and Garmin-Slipstream rider Bradley Wiggins is sixth, 4:53 behind Contador.

After the stage, Contador told Velonews that his attack "was a tactic we thought about before the stage, to attack and distance the Schlecks. I spoke with Bruyneel; he told me to attack if I wanted. I attacked and I saw that the brothers were strong," Contador said. "I saw that Andreas stayed back. I was constantly looking back to see if he was coming back, but he suffered a bonk behind, and he couldn't regain the wheel. For that, I am pretty sad."

Bruyneel had a different view, however.

He told reporters, "That attack from Contador . . . that wasn't really . . . I had not advised him to go. He didn't need to go. He didn't need to attack. I told him, 'You don't have to attack to win the tour today.' It's a bit of a pity that Andreas couldn't hang on because I think we could have been first, second and third, and instead we are first, fourth and fifth."

Armstrong also Twittered with a hint of displeasure:

"Getting lots of question why AC [Contador] attacked and dropped Kloeden. I still haven't figured it out either. Oh well."

Armstrong has said since Sunday, when Contador took over the lead with a strong climb up to Verbier, that he would be content supporting Contador. Whether that vow remains after Wednesday is open to question. But it seems unlikely that anyone can take major chunks of time out of Contador's lead.

Contador finished second only to world time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara in the opening time trial in Monaco. He was one second faster than Wiggins, three seconds faster than Kloeden, 22 seconds better than Armstrong, 42 seconds better than Andy Schleck.

The Schleck brothers spoke after Wednesday's stage, saying Contador still could be beaten though they weren't sure how that would happen.

Earlier this season, Contador was well on his way to winning the Paris-Nice stage race until he ran out of energy because he didn't take in enough fluids and food during the race. He lost three minutes to the leaders and cost himself a win. Armstrong gave Contador a gentle Twitter nudge on that day. "Unfortunate day for Alberto. Amazing talent but still a lot to learn."

If Contador has learned all his lessons, he'll likely be in yellow on Sunday. If not, that brutal climb to Mt. Ventoux could yet cause a shakeup. The Schleck brothers aren't conceding. And maybe Armstrong hasn't either.

--

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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