Armstrong Falls More Than a Minute Back

When Alberto Contador launched his bold attack, it was reminiscent of Lance Armstrong's golden years.

The fast pedaling was the same, the determination was the same -- but it was a different rider on the saddle: his teammate Alberto Contador, already one of the sport's greatest at the age of 26.

The Spaniard crushed all other Tour contenders on Sunday's first Alpine stage from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, claiming the leader's yellow jersey he wanted more than anything else.

As he already did last week in the Pyrenees, the 2007 Tour winner showed he has no rival in the mountains -- and took a serious step toward a second victory in cycling's showcase event.

"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," Contador said.

During his seven-year reign from 1999 and 2005, Armstrong always used hilltop finishes to stamp his domination. This time the Texan was unable to follow the insane pace imposed by Contador, whose legs are 11 years fresher than Armstrong's.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy to be his domestique," a fatalistic Armstrong said. "I'm proud of him."

Last week in the Pyrenees, Armstrong criticized Contador following an attack which allowed the Spaniard to leapfrog him. The Texan then accused his Astana teammate of riding against team strategy -- and even hinted he could have followed Contador if he had really wanted to.

It was a different story after the final, 5.5-mile ascent to Verbier, where Armstrong fully understood that he couldn't compete. The cancer survivor, back on the Tour four years after his last victory, accepted his chance of victory is minimal.

"Yeah, it will be hard," Armstrong said. "A day like this really shows who's the best, and I wasn't on par with what's required to win the Tour. So for me, that's the reality, that's not devastating news or anything."

Armstrong moved up to second place in the standings after the 15th stage, but lost precious time to Contador, who took control of the race as he ended Rinaldo Nocentini's eight-day run in the overall lead. Armstrong trails Contador by 1 minute, 37 seconds.

"I think being out for four years, and being one of the older guys out here, there might be people out there that expect me to ride like I did in 2004, 2005 -- that's not reality," Armstrong said. "If I do another year, and I get a season under my belt, maybe we get that race condition back."

"But right now, I don't have it," he added.

Armstrong has previously said he may launch his own team next season, while Contador is likely to quit Astana for another squad.

Contador seems so strong that only an accident could deprive him of victory.

"From now on, the most difficult thing will be to control the race," Contador said. "A lot of riders will try to take advantage of every opportunity to attack. We will have to respond."

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 promised to put his own goals on the back burner for the good of his team, which has three riders in the top 5 -- Contador, Armstrong and fourth-place Andreas Kloeden.

"Now it's clear that we have the strongest rider in the race. This is a team sport, so you can't -- none of us, Andreas or myself -- can think about ourselves," the Texan said. "Overall, if we play it really, really smart, we can have three guys in the top five and the guy who wins. That's a special opportunity, but you know, I think now is the time for me to put my chances aside, and focus on the team."

Riders get a rest day on Monday before the next two Alpine stages, an individual time trial in Annecy on Thursday, and a ride up the feared Mont Ventoux on Saturday before the race ends in Paris on July 26.

"There's three more days that could shake things up. But that's not at the front of my mind right now," Armstrong said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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