- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

PARIS | Even as his chance of winning this year’s Tour de France slipped away, Lance Armstrong earned more than his share of attention.

He announced that he was forming a new cycling team with RadioShack for next year’s race. He finished in third - not bad for 37 and more than three years away from the sport.

Keeping that excitement alive in 2010 will depend on whether he can contend with 26-year-old champion Alberto Contador.

“I’m staying positive,” said Armstrong, who expects to perform better with another season under his belt. “My level will be a little better next year.”

It will have to be - the numbers are against him.

Armstrong became the second oldest rider to make the podium, after Raymond Poulidor of France - who finished third in 1976 at age 40. Contador already has two titles and is more than a decade younger than Armstrong.

The American himself acknowledged the Spaniard has the potential to become a five-time Tour winner.

“Well, he’s that good and he’s not that old, so you can do the math,” said Armstrong, who was bested by his Astana teammate’s devastating attacks in the mountains and power in the time trials.

Back to competition this season after 3 1/2 years of retirement, the Texan quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to unsettle Contador on the road and challenged him mentally.

Armstrong criticized his teammate’s strategy following the first mountain stage in the Pyrenees, hinting that the Spaniard was running against the team’s common interests. He then revealed tensions within the Astana team caused by their rivalry.

Even after securing the yellow jersey in the Alps, Contador was confronted by his team for his tactical choices.

Asked Sunday on French TV what the hardest moment in this race, Contador said: “It was in the [team] hotel.”

“It has been an especially difficult Tour for me, but I savor it and it is more special because of it,” he said after the awards ceremony.

But the Spaniard didn’t even take a tumble and was so dominant that his reign on the Tour seems as if it could last a long time.

“Contador is first of all a great climber, very elegant and flowing,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. “But he also showed a great strength of character.”

Armstrong agreed that Contador turned in an amazing performance.

“Contador is that good, so I don’t see how I would have been higher than that, even in the other years,” said Armstrong, who won the Tour seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005 before retiring. “I think his performance this year would have beaten my performances in ‘01 and ‘04 and ‘05.”

Contador already is one of cycling’s greats, having won all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain, something Armstrong never achieved in his career.

“It was a hard Tour,” said Contador, who had to sit out last year while Astana was banned because of previous doping scandals. “Before leaving, I knew I had to be ready both physically and mentally. At the end of each stage, I said ‘one day less’. There were tensions, but the situation has normalized. And I am very happy with the result.”

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