Tour de France: Armstrong's statement of intent shows gloves are off

Seven-times winner steps up verbal pressure on team-mate Contador while Wiggins impresses again
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The Independent Online

The Tour's second successive stage in the Pyrenees yesterday saw Luis Leon Sanchez claim Spain's first victory of the race in Saint Gaudens – a fine calculated, classy win against three breakaways.

But Sanchez's victory remains a sideshow to the gripping main storyline of the 2009 Tour, the stand-off between the two favourites and Astana team-mates, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong.

Second and third respectively behind race leader Rinaldo Nocentini, yesterday. There were no developments in the overall, leaving the Spaniard and the American less than 10 seconds away from the yellow jersey, held by Rinaldo Nocentini, a likeable Italian from the AGR team who freely admits he only took the lead by chance and that his days as the Tour's top rider are numbered.

Levi Leipheimer, an Astana team-mate of Contador and Armstrong, is lying fourth, meaning the first rider to break the Kazakh squad's near-claustrophobic domination of the top positions is Briton Bradley Wiggins, who confirmed his enormous progress in the mountains by remaining fifth.

It's the first time that the Garmin-Slipstream rider has made such a strong showing on the climbs, and the Briton pulled no punches when asked what the reaction of the rest of the bunch had been to his outstanding performance in the Pyrenees. "To be honest I think a lot of people think I'm on drugs. I'm sure of it. I know how the sport is," he said. "Lots of guys are going to be thinking 'what's Wiggins doing?'

"That's unfortunate, but I'm not Stefan Schumacher or Bernard Kohl" – both of whom tested positive for the blood booster EPO last year. "I've worked hard for this."

Contador, Armstrong, Wiggins and the rest of the peloton spent nearly a third of Saturday's stage – 47 kilometres – grinding their way up three major Pyrenean climbs. First on the menu was the Envalira, an interminable series of hairpin bends the Tour tackled almost as soon as it left Andorra La Vella's grimy labyrinth of skyscrapers and duty-free shops. But the last, the Col D'Agnes, was too far from the finish and Astana massed at the front to stomp out the one brief flicker of rebellion on the ascent, by Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.

Despite struggling on the Col D'Agnes, Nocentini remained in yellow, but Mark Cavendish surrendered the green jersey he has held since last Monday. The Columbia-HTC rider's most serious challenger, Thor Hushovd, moved into an early break and managed to win two mid-stage sprints. A point behind Cavendish before, the Norwegian now leads by five.

Contador and Armstrong had a quiet stage, which gave them ample time to chew over the dramatic events of the first week. Of the two contenders, Armstrong had initially flung his hat into the ring the hardest, coming to within less than a second of wearing yellow after Astana's victory in the team time trial last Wednesday.

Having previously insisted he was "just pleased to in this marvellous race", after Wednesday's near miss Armstrong suddenly began acting much more like Lance the Tour dominator of old. "It will not be easy to win if I'm lucky enough to win [the Tour] again," he said. "Twelve months ago I expected to be here; six months ago I didn't expect it. In the Tour of Italy, I didn't expect it. Today, I'm realistic. But I'm not going to be last."

Could Armstrong, for the eighth time in his career, really challenge in the Tour again? The American's comments were his strongest statement of intent so far – and seemed like a warning shot across Contador's bows that if the Spaniard flagged, he would be more than happy to take over.

Given the mounting pressure it was hardly surprising that Contador struck back on his favourite terrain – the mountains, on Friday. The only unexpected element, perhaps, was that Contador left it so late, attacking three kilometres from the summit. In any event, the Spaniard's solo charge brought no response from Armstrong, or other rivals, and the 26-year-old opened a gap of 21 seconds to go back ahead of the American overall, albeit by two seconds.

While Contador was delighted with dropping his rivals, Armstrong was terse in his post-race analysis, simply saying: "Alberto didn't stick to the original plan, but I wasn't surprised."

What that original strategy had been, he did not reveal and what Astana's plan is long-term, now, is anybody's guess. Contador and Armstrong are perfectly placed to challenge for yellow, and that seems unlikely to change before the crucial Alpine stages and ascent of the Mont Ventoux in the third week. So for now the stalemate between the two will continue – and the tension will continue to rise.

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