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Race becoming Armstrong v Contador
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The Tour de France has become a duel between seven-time champion Lance Armstrong and 2007 winner Alberto Contador after Astana won Tuesday's team time trial.

American Armstrong, back on the saddle after 3 1/2 years in retirement, missed out on the yellow jersey by a whisker as his team won the stage ahead of Garmin-Slipstream and Saxo Bank.

He was second in the overall standings with the same time as leader Fabian Cancellara. Contador was third, 19 seconds back as the first mountain stage, which includes an out-of-category climb to Arcalis, loomed on Friday.

Three favorites have slipped out of contention as defending champion Carlos Sastre, twice runner-up Cadel Evans, and Giro winner Denis Menchov were all over 2:30 off the pace after Tuesday's stage.

"I think today the Tour de France is finished for some riders," Armstrong told reporters.

"With the current classification, you can look at the results. It's difficult to make up some time."

"I told Alberto this morning, let's make this race impossible to win for other riders. We accomplished that."

Among the big guns, only Andy Schleck has limited the damage, finishing the stage in third place with Saxo Bank.

The Luxembourg rider lies 20th overall, 1:41 behind Armstrong.

Race becoming Armstrong v Contador

Time-trial specialist Cancellara, Olympic champion in the discipline, is not expected to hold on to the yellow jersey once the Tour enters the mountains.

"My rivals have already lost a lot of ground and they are already forced to attack me in the first mountain stage to Andorra Arcalis on Friday," said Contador.

"Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre don't have too much of a choice because there are not many stages that favor them."

A sometimes clumsy rider in the flat stages, Contador, is much more at ease on his favorite terrain, with the pressure on his rivals.

"(Not having the yellow jersey in the team) is perhaps better because we will not be under pressure or won't have to control the race," the 26-year-old said.

Armstrong, not exactly the new kid in town, was fully aware Contador would be in his element on Friday and did not put himself in the position of an overwhelming favorite.

"Twelve months ago I expected it to be easier. Six months ago, I did not expect it (to be in this position). I realized 'oh shit, it's harder than I thought'," the 37-year-old Texan said.

"I've got both feet on the ground, it won't be like in 2004, 2005, 2001. It will be a lot harder than expected."

The question of team leadership between Contador and Armstrong is set to be discussed within Astana after Friday's stage, the American said.

"For that day, it's possible (that there are two leaders), we will ride both protected (by teammates)," he said.

"After that day, it will be another situation. We will have to talk about it."

"There are two ways of being a leader," added Armstrong.

"You can be the strongest one or you can be the leader because of your experience, because you have the respect of the riders within the team."

Should Contador dare to attack Armstrong in the 10.6-km ascent to Arcalis at an average gradient of 7.1 percent, he could move above his teammate in the overall standings and put himself in the best position to win the Tour.

In 1986, things turned nasty between Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, who was attacked several times by the Frenchman, nicknamed "The Badger". The American eventually won the Tour.

A scenario with both Astana riders arriving together at the top of Arcalis is possible, if unlikely.

Contador could always claim the protected leader status because of his recent results - victories in the 2008 Giro and Vuelta, and 2007 Tour, while Armstrong has yet to show he can be at his best through a three-week race.

"You're not gonna write your story until we get on top of the Mont Ventoux," Armstrong said.

(Reuters via China Daily July 9, 2009)

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