- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

ARCALIS, Andorra | In the Tour de France duel between teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, the first big mountain stage went to the Spaniard.

Contador, the 2007 winner, unleashed a burst of speed Friday in the last uphill mile into the tiny Pyrenees principality of Andorra — and Armstrong didn’t lay chase.

By the end of the seventh stage, Contador had bumped the seven-time champion from second to third in the overall standings. Perhaps more important, he showed he has the legs for this unrelenting three-week test.

The 140-mile trek from Barcelona to the ski resort of Arcalis was the longest stage of this Tour. It was won by Brice Feillu of France and produced a new leader in Rinaldo Nocentini.

Nocentini, who joined Feillu in a nine-man breakaway, became the first Italian in nine years to seize the yellow jersey and ended the six-day hold on the lead by Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara.

Contador is six seconds behind Nocentini, a Tour newcomer at 31 and a stage winner at the Tour of California this year. Armstrong dropped one spot to third and is eight seconds back.

The question of the day was whether strong climbers would attack Armstrong and Contador, hoping to cut into their deficits from the two time trials during the last week.

Armstrong entered the day a fraction of a second behind Cancellara. Contador trailed by 19 seconds in third.

Astana’s plan had been to let less threatening breakaway riders go while squelching attacks from more serious rivals like Cadel Evans of Australia, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg or 2008 champion Carlos Sastre of Spain.

After Evans, a two-time Tour runner-up, took his shot in the final climb, Armstrong hugged the Australian’s back wheel. Then Contador struck. Withstanding the headwinds along the slopes that make solo riding exhausting, the Spaniard overcame his gap with Armstrong. He insisted his real motivation was gaining time on other contenders.

“I was just asserting my position against my main rivals,” Contador said. “Nothing was planned in advance, but when I saw Evans and Schleck didn’t budge, I sensed the opportunity because I had good legs.

“This is not a show of force. I felt very good, and I took a lot of pleasure in riding in the mountains right close to Spain and my home.”

The plan at Astana had been to wait for rivals to strike, not gain time on each other. But after Armstrong used the wind and his wits in Stage 3 with a move that vaulted him ahead of Contador in the standings, the gloves may now be off.

Armstrong said he had foreseen a possible move by Contador.

“It was a fine day,” he said. “I think overall we’re fine. Yesterday I said I expected him to assert himself in the race.”

The stage was a far cry from Armstrong’s heyday, when he racked up seven straight Tour wins from 1999 to 2005. Back then, he stamped his dominance from the first encounter with the mountains.

“I didn’t expect a demonstration like, you know, some of the other years on the first climb days,” the 37-year-old Texan said. He said the headwinds prodded many riders to seek shelter in the bunch.

“We’ll have plenty of days at the end of this Tour where there’s only a couple of guys together,” he said.

Contador finished the stage ninth, 3:26 after Feillu. Armstrong was 15th, 3:47 behind — the same time as Evans, Schleck and Sastre. Those three are all back about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes in the title chase.

Armstrong has been solid but not outstanding form at this Tour, the centerpiece of his comeback after 3 1/2 years of retirement. His smart riding has outshone his physical prowess.

“Overall, I feel pretty good,” he said. “Things didn’t quite go according to plan that we set up earlier, but it didn’t matter.”

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