- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

MONT VENTOUX, France | Alberto Contador is basking in double satisfaction: a Tour de France victory is an easy ride away, and he has pulled it off in spite of his own team - and Lance Armstrong.

The 26-year-old Spaniard all but secured a second victory in cycling’s main event Saturday by fending off challengers in the race climax on one of France’s toughest climbs, Mont Ventoux. Armstrong, the seven-time champion, will be on the podium for an eighth time, but he’s third - not the step he had aimed for.

When he sees Contador in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees, Armstrong - after not-so-subtle jabs at the Spaniard during the race - could be an envious shade of green.

Earlier in the three-week event, Contador had sought to play down the differences in their Astana team, dodging or downplaying questions about “tension” that Armstrong evoked. With victory nearly certain, the Spaniard opened up a bit.

“My conscience is very clear because in the end I have run two races - one on the bike and one at the team hotel,” he said Saturday on Spanish broadcaster TVE.

Contador knew his task at the Tour would be tricky when Armstrong announced last year he was coming back from retirement to join his old mentor, Johan Bruyneel, with the Astana team. The Belgian strategist had been training Contador as his new star.

Once the Tour was on, and Armstrong’s barbs flew, Contador counted the days and tried to focus on racing - not on the Texan and tensions at the team dinner table.

“Every day, I told myself: ‘One day less,’ ” he said. “Now it’s all settled. Everything is better, and the situation is back to normal.”

From the other side, Armstrong said he had no regrets as to how he rode in this year’s Tour and that third place is a respectable result to him.

“It’s different,” Armstrong said. “I have no regrets. I wouldn’t change anything about my performance, the tactics, about the preparation. I’m happy with that. In my previous career, I would have been on fire. So to now be third and to be proud of that, and my kids to be proud of that, the fans, and the people of France - everybody loves that. It’s a good thing.”

The 37-year-old Texan kept suspense alive for two weeks before realizing his aging legs wouldn’t propel him to an eighth Tour win. That discovery arrived a week ago in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, where Contador dominated with a move that gave him the leader’s yellow jersey.

“In Verbier, I knew that it wasn’t going to happen,” Armstrong said.

He offered high praise for Contador, who won his first Tour in 2007. He said even at his peak he may have lost to Contador.

“Contador is that good. … I think his performance this year would have beaten my performances in ‘01 and ‘04 and ‘05,” Armstrong said.

While much has been made of Armstrong’s comeback, Contador had one too: He was unable to defend his 2007 title because Astana was not invited last year over a doping scandal before he joined. With Armstrong set to lead a new team next year and Bruyneel coy about his future, Contador’s plans are uncertain. But he knows he won’t team with Armstrong again.

“He wanted to win. I wanted to win. That doesn’t make for a necessarily compatible situation,” Contador said. “He will be surely a formidable adversary next year.”

With doping scandals tarnishing the Tour in recent years, suspicions linger about whether riders are clean. Contador refused to answer whether he had ever used prohibited substances, but he welcomed additionally anti-doping controls.

“I am subjected to [tests] 365 days a year,” he said. “And I do it with good will, because I think it’s good for cycling, for the sport I love.”

Sunday’s final stage will be a largely ceremonial ride to Paris, and breakaway attempts among the leaders are taboo. Only an accident would prevent Contador from winning.

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