VERBIER, Switzerland — The Tour de France star pedalled up out of his saddle in a mountain stage, dusted his rivals, and seized the yellow jersey that he knows all too well and covets so much.
This time, it wasn’t Lance Armstrong, but his teammate and one-time rival Alberto Contador, who won Sunday’s 15th stage and made a case to be the Texan’s successor at cycling’s premier event.
After such a dominant display in which Armstrong finished in ninth place — one minute 35 seconds after Contador and among other also-rans — he sees his chances of an eighth Tour victory fading.
“It will be hard. A day like this really shows who’s the best, and I wasn’t on par with what is required to win the Tour,” Armstrong said. “That’s the reality; that’s not devastating news or anything.”
As the three-week race entered the Alps, the 26-year-old Spaniard recovered the celebrated shirt that he hadn’t worn since his Tour victory in 2007.
He made it clear he’ll be the man to beat this year.
Race contenders knew that after a week of mainly flat stages that didn’t alter the top standings much, the 207-kilometre ride from Pontarlier, France, to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier was critical.
Armstrong rose from fourth to second in the standings but lost time to Contador, whom he now trails by one minute 37 seconds.
Now, he sees his job as serving as a “domestique” — or support rider — for Contador, putting an end to speculation about whether he or the Spaniard deserved the role of Astana team leader.
Ten breakaway riders had set the pace from early on in the stage and chiseled out a maximum gap of 4:40 by the 125-km mark, before the peloton gradually started closing in.
Rivals of the Astana teammates — notably the Danish team Saxo Bank — pressed the pace or tried to attack as the final climb loomed, but Contador held off every assault, then launched his own.
About one-third of the way up the 5.5-mile ascent to Verbier, Contador burst ahead of other pre-race favourites and kept extending his lead all the way to the finish.
“Saxo didn’t play around. They hit the bottom full-gas, we saw that coming, so we were perfectly on the wheel,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong at times rose out of his saddle during the last climb, his jersey opened and his necklace bobbing left and right. Contador, riding alone in front with two kilometres to go, angrily swatted back some fans who were running closely beside him on the climb.
By the end, Armstrong huffed across the line in ninth place — after riders like two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia and 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain. He had started the day fourth and eight seconds behind Rinaldo Nocentini, the Italian whom Contador stripped of the yellow jersey.
“(Contador) is the best in the race, and he deserved to win,” Armstrong said.
Only a week earlier, Armstrong had acknowledged “tension” within Astana amid his rivalry with Contador.
The Texan, chastened, now wants to follow Contador’s lead.
“This is a team sport,” Armstrong said. “I think now is the time for me to put my chances aside, and focus on the team.”
Contador basked in the expression of support.
“Lance Armstrong was my idol, but dropping him today wasn’t important — he was just like any other rider . . . It’s an honour for me to have him working for me,” he told reporters.