by Justin Davis
PARIS, Oct 15, 2009 (AFP) – Lance Armstrong tried to conceal it, but a wry smile gave away just how high his rivalry with yellow jersey rival Alberto Contador may soar on their anticipated duel at the Tour de France in 2010.
To fans who missed out on this year’s epic, Spanish climbing ace Contador overcame huge pressures off the bike to claim his second overall win, and fourth in a major Tour, as Armstrong, returning after a four-year absence, did well to finish third at nearly six minutes off the pace.
But the backdrop to their rivalry was even juicier.
Normally teams at the Tour de France serve to have one designated leader fighting for the race’s coveted yellow jersey.
But as both Armstrong and Contador were riding for the same outfit, Astana, the camp was split, leading to tensions, accusations and back-biting that really only let fly once the race was done.
Now with Armstrong racing for Radio Shack, the pair are now planning respective campaigns ahead of a hugely-anticipated duel in July 2010 when the race begins in Rotterdam.
While Armstrong — who battled cancer to return to cycling and win the race a record seven years in a row — said Britain’s Bradley Wiggins and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg will be tough rivals, he admitted Contador is his biggest hurdle.
“The Schleck brothers (Andy and Frank) will be there, Wiggins will come back and be strong,” said Armstrong, smiling before acknowledging that Contador will be his biggest threat.
“It’s good for cycling,” added the American.
“I think he (Contador) and I can do without it (media hype). But I think it’s good for the event and good for our sport.”
While Armstrong has provided the sport with its biggest story in decades, Contador is stage racing’s man of the moment after winning both the Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
He also showed huge strength of character throughout a tough cohabitation with Armstrong prior to July’s race, during which the Madrid-born rider had to shoulder the extra pressure of seeing Armstrong try to fight him for the right to battle for the yellow jersey.
When it came to the high mountains, the spindly yet powerful climbing legs of Contador left most of his rivals in the shade — and Armstrong in third, at 5min 24secs off his pace, on the Champs Elysees in Paris.
Contador said in L’Equipe newspaper Wednesday that knowing he would not be racing with Armstrong in 2010 “has allowed me to feel settled and calm”.
“It has taken a huge load off my back. Honestly, I couldn’t see myself spending another year like that,” he added.
And although doubts remain over his future with Astana — he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get out of his remaining one-year contract — the Spaniard’s talent should speak for itself once the race gets going.
Although aware of the threat of Armstrong, Contador has given the aging American the ultimate motivation to show he can still cut it with the under-30s.
“My authentic rival is Andy Schleck,” said Contador.
On the summit finishes where Contador usually has the luxury of attacking from afar, only Schleck, a potential future champion, was able to follow.
The third week of racing in the Pyrenees next year, where the legendary Col du Tourmalet will be crested once on stage 16 and host a summit finish the next day — could be decisive ahead of the race’s only time trial on stage 19.
“If I have good legs, I can take out a lot of time in the mountains going into the final time trial,” said Contador, who rubber-stamped his victory in July by winning the race’s second and final time trial.
“Looking at the time trial, it’s better for me than last year. This Tour is better for me than last year, especially with a stage finish atop a climb so difficult as the Tourmalet.”