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Rediff.com  » Sports » Contador finds Armstrong in his way, again

Contador finds Armstrong in his way, again

June 30, 2010 10:39 IST

Alberto Contador (left) with Lance ArmstrongOnce again, Alberto Contador is the Tour de France favourite and, once again, Lance Armstrong stands in his way.

Although Luxembourg's Andy Schleck seems to be his main challenger, Armstrong will lead a very strong RadioShack team that could, if they do not help their man to win the Tour, cause havoc in the three-week race and deny Contador a third title.

Spaniard Contador is the best climber and one of the top time trialists and Armstrong, who was third overall last year in his comeback season, knows that too well.

He knows more, however.

His long-time friend Johan Bruyneel, the RadioShack manager who guided him to his seven Tour triumphs, is also the man behind Contador's two victories in 2007 and 2009.

Sports director Alain Gallopin, now at RadioShack, groomed Contador last season and knows everything about the prodigy. So do most of his former Astana team mates, who followed Armstrong at the end of last season.

Their knowledge could prove a lethal weapon in a race where every single move, every reaction is scrutinised and analysed by rivals.

"It's an advantage," said Armstrong, who has announced that this will be his final Tour. "But he's a complete rider with few weaknesses, he climbs better (than anybody else) and he time-trials with the best."

The nine RadioShack men in this year's Tour were Astana riders with Contador last season when the Spaniard and the American were locked in a psychological battle that escalated during the race.

"I don't think my team mates abandoned me," Contador, who was not sure he would stay at Astana until late in the off season, said. "At that time, I had nothing concrete to offer them."

Contador eventually stayed with Astana and the team, considered weak this season, could prove more solid around the Spaniard with Alexandre Vinokourov as his lieutenant.

COBBLED SECTIONS

Vinokourov is returning to the world's greatest race after serving two years' suspension for blood doping in the 2007 Tour. He denied wrongdoing.

Also back is Italian Ivan Basso, who was banned for two years in 2007 for his involvement in the Operation Puerto doping scandal.

He will lead team Liquigas's strong challenge after winning the Giro d'Italia at the end of May. However, no rider has achieved the Giro/Tour double in the same year since Marco Pantani in 1998.

Vinokourov is expected to protect Contador in the first week, when the wind will blow hard, and on the early cobbled sections.

If he survives the test, Contador will probably make his move in one of four punishing Pyrenean stages, with the peloton tackling the intimidating Col du Tourmalet twice.

"I would love to make the difference in the Col du Tourmalet," Contador said. "I love this pass and I know it very well, it's my favourite."

Bradley Wiggins, bidding to become the first Briton to win the Tour having joined Team Sky this season, might find his limit there -- just like road race world champion Cadel Evans.

The Australian may not be fresh enough after riding the Giro flat out and cannot rely on a top team in the mountains.

Contador's main threat should be Schleck, who was second overall in 2009 and with the help of his brother Frank gave him a hard time in the high mountain stage to Le Grand Bornand.

It was not enough, though, and it might not be enough this year, so the Schleck brothers are hoping their Saxo Bank team will give Contador a hard ride on the cobbles during the third stage.

"Alberto really just needs two or three climbers at his side in the mountains, but it will be different on the cobblestones," Andy Schleck said after the Tour presentation last October.

"He could suffer, while myself and Frank will have the support of cobblestone specialists like Fabian (Cancellara), Stuart (O'Grady) and Matti (Breschel)."

Russian Denis Menchov, who had an unhappy time last year, has kept a low profile all season but the Rabobank rider could be fit for the Tour and, with the support of climber Robert Gesink, may be a surprise contender.

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