- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

VERBIER, Switzerland | The Tour de France star pedaled up out of his saddle in a mountain stage, dusted his rivals and seized the yellow jersey that he covets so much.

This time, it wasn’t Lance Armstrong but his teammate and one-time rival Alberto Contador, who won Sunday’s 15th stage and made a case to be the Texan’s successor at cycling’s premier event.

After such a dominant display in which Armstrong finished in ninth place - 1 minute, 35 seconds after Contador and among other also-rans - he sees his chances of an eighth Tour victory fading.

“It will be hard. A day like this really shows who’s the best, and I wasn’t on par with what is required to win the Tour,” Armstrong said. “That’s the reality; that’s not devastating news or anything. …

“I gave it everything that I had, and I wasn’t the best.”

As the three-week race entered the Alps, the 26-year-old Spaniard recovered the celebrated shirt that he hadn’t worn since his Tour victory in 2007.

He made it clear he’ll be the man to beat this year.

Race contenders knew that after a week of mainly flat stages didn’t alter the standings much, the 128.9-mile ride from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier was critical.

Armstrong rose from fourth to second but lost time to Contador, whom he now trails by 1:37.

Now he sees his job as serving as a “domestique” - or support rider - for Contador, putting an end to speculation about whether he or the Spaniard deserved the role of Astana team leader.

Ten breakaway riders had 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.

Rivals of the Astana teammates - notably the Danish team Saxo Bank - pressed the pace or tried to attack as the final climb loomed, but Contador held off every assault, then launched his own.

About one-third of the way up the 5.5-mile ascent to Verbier, Contador burst ahead of other prerace favorites and kept extending his lead all the way to the finish.

“Saxo didn’t play around. They hit the bottom full-gas, we saw that coming, so we were perfectly on the wheel,” Armstrong said. “I think the thing to note is that Alberto responded.”

Armstrong at times rose out of his saddle during the last climb, his jersey opened and his necklace bobbing left and right. Contador, riding alone in front with 1.4 miles to go, angrily swatted back some fans who were running closely beside him on the climb.

By the end, Armstrong huffed across the line in ninth place - after riders like two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia and 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain. He had started the day fourth and eight seconds behind Rinaldo Nocentini, the Italian whom Contador stripped of the yellow jersey.

“[Contador] is the best in the race, and he deserved to win,” Armstrong said.

Only a week earlier, Armstrong had acknowledged “tension” within Astana amid his rivalry with Contador. And in March, when Contador bungled his management of the Paris-Nice race, Armstrong said the Spaniard still had “a lot to learn.”

The Texan, chastened, now wants to follow Contador’s lead.

“This is a team sport,” Armstrong said. “I think now is the time for me to put my chances aside and focus on the team.”

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