- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

ANNECY, France | Lance Armstrong is in unfamiliar territory at this Tour de France: fighting just to remain among the top three riders.

Accustomed to dominating, the seven-time Tour winner had to settle for 16th place in Thursday’s time trial and a tenuous grip on third place.

The 37-year-old Texan battled fatigue in the 18th stage, a 25.2-mile race against the clock around bucolic Lake Annecy that Alberto Contador won in 48 minutes, 31 seconds to close in on the overall victory.

Armstrong was 1:30 behind, but he entered the day in fourth and easily overcame a 30-second deficit to Frank Schleck. The Saxo Bank rider finished 2:34 behind Contador to slip from third to sixth but is only 34 seconds behind Armstrong.

After Thursday’s stage, Armstrong said he had “mixed emotions. Sixteenth in a time trial is not a good result, but my ambition is to get on the podium, so I have to be happy with that.”

During his reign as Tour champion, Armstrong only finished lower than third in a time trial once, when he placed seventh in one in 2003. This year, in the Stage 1 time trial in Monaco, he was 10th.

Armstrong is admittedly not at his best this year and is already holding out hope for a better performance in 2010. He announced Thursday that he is forming a new team that will be sponsored by Radio Shack. His current team, Astana, has had financial woes, and he has had testy ties with its Kazakh owners.

His adequate ride kept his hopes alive for a podium spot, though he will have to hold off Schleck, a top climber who is sure to challenge the American on Saturday during the uphill finish of the Tour’s next to last stage.

Schleck and his younger brother Andy had bumped Armstrong from second place to fourth a day earlier in the last punishing Alpine stage, proving they will be a force to reckon with in Stage 20.

“I suffered,” Armstrong said. “I probably started too hard, and maybe I was just empty from yesterday and those cramps I suffered at the end of the [17th] stage.”

Andy Schleck retained second by finishing 21st - 1:45 behind Contador and only 15 seconds slower that Armstrong, who trails by 1:14 in the race for second overall.

Contador, the 2007 Tour champion, is looking more like the Armstrong of yesteryear as he proved he can seemingly dominate at will in both time trials and in the mountains.

In a sport long marred by doping, some suggest Contador’s performance looks too good to be true.

In an article published Thursday in French newspaper Le Monde, three-time Tour winner Greg Lemond questioned the speed Contador mustered in his Stage 15 victory up to the Verbier ski station.

Asked twice to respond to those comments during a news conference after Thursday’s stage, Contador refused.

Contador won the Tour in 2007 after Michael Rasmussen was kicked out on doping suspicions with just four days to go, when the Dane was in the yellow jersey. Contador wasn’t allowed to defend his title in 2008 after Astana was banned for doping violations before he joined.

Pat McQuaid, the head of the International Cycling Union, said results are in on “dozens” of doping tests at the Tour this year, and none has come back positive. Contador, like many of the top riders in the race, has been tested numerous times, he said.

Contador beat Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland by three seconds in the stage in and around Annecy. Mikhail Ignatiev of Russia was third, 15 seconds back.

“I went all out,” Contador said.

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