Armstrong adjusts to new supporting role
Still-ailing Austinite helps as teammate Leipheimer takes on podium pursuit
SAINT-JEAN-DE-MAURIENNE, France — Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong eased into his new role as superstar domestique Tuesday as the Tour de France finished its journey through the Alps.
Armstrong’s day-old assignment, which continues today in a transitional stage out of the mountains, is to ride in support of RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer, who is now in a competitive position to make the final podium in Paris.
In this new role, Armstrong, who still was ailing physically from three crashes on Sunday, stuck to the wheels of Italy’s Ivan Basso and Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck, while Leipheimer battled with other podium contenders about 30 seconds ahead on the course.
“We’re trying to get Levi to the podium,” Armstrong said after his 18th-place finish Tuesday. “I was there with two guys who are threats to him, Basso
and Van den Broeck. There wasn’t much I could do other than sit there, but I wasn’t exactly ready to jump away either.”
Leipheimer moved up two spots on Tuesday, and was to start today in sixth place — 3 minutes, 59 seconds out of first. Armstrong finished Tuesday’s stage in 31st place overall and 15:54 back.
Armstrong, after the Tour’s rest day on Monday, had his role reversed from team leader to key lieutenant. But because he has the cache of a seventime Tour champion, team director Johan Bruyneel will allow Armstrong to go for a stage victory in the Pyrenees as he says goodbye to a race he once dominated.
“We’ll see,” Armstrong said of a stage victory. “I’ve got to look for an opportunity. If I keep progressing and getting better and better, I’ll be there.”
Armstrong and Leipheimer were a long way from the Tour’s two elite riders: Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck and Spain’s Alberto Contador. If anything, Tuesday’s stage nine from Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne made it clear that, barring a catastrophic injury, this year’s Tour champion will be either Schleck, the 2009 runner-up, or Alberto Contador, last year’s winner.
Schleck, thanks to his seventh-place finish behind stage winner Sandy Casar, will wear yellow today as the Tour winds toward Gap, the village that divides the northern and southern Alps. Chances are, a French rider will win today. It’s a tradition on Bastille Day, when the home country’s riders try to show off on the biggest holiday of the year.
After Tuesday, Schleck owned a 41-second lead over Contador, who both moved up a spot in the rankings after Monday’s rest day.
“I think he and I are a little above the others,” Schleck said of Contador. “I didn’t put time on Contador, but he couldn’t drop me either.”
Schleck and Contador dueled over the Col de la Madeleine, the first beyond-category climb on the Tour’s three-week itinerary. Schleck was the aggressor, knowing he needed to build as much time as possible on Contador in the mountains to offset the Spaniard’s timetrialing ability.
Their intense pace shredded the lead group of contenders. Leipheimer stayed near Russia’s Dennis Menchov, while Armstrong kept up with Basso, the winner of the Giro d’Italia.
“I tried to stick with Contador and Schleck a little too long,” Leipheimer said. “Luckily I found a good group to ride with. I feel better, absolutely.”
Third place on the final podium, which Leipheimer is hoping to earn, still was up for grabs with more than half the race yet to come. Spain’s Sammy Sanchez was third after Tuesday, 2:45 behind Scheck.
Injuries continue to plague this Tour.
Australia’s Cadel Evans, who had been the race leader, struggled mightily as soon as he arrived at the base of the Madeleine. He lost 8:09 over the final 20 miles of the course.
When the stage was over, Team BMC revealed that Evans, its top rider, was racing with a broken elbow. He suffered the fracture early in Sunday’s stage, in a crash that also brought down Armstrong. But Evans was able to control the pain and take the top spot, however temporarily, on the podium.
Evans was ashen-faced as he finished the stage and maneuvered through the crowd to his team bus. The two-time Tour runner-up dropped from first to 18th and out of yellow-jersey contention. His own team hadn’t been told he’d been hurt.
Armstrong looked to be feeling better than he did Sunday, when he skidded on his back after crashing at nearly 40 mph.
He spent Monday’s rest day riding a nearby beyond-category climb to chase away the pain.
“I feel better,” he said, “so I guess the rest day was good.”
Thor Hushovd of Norway (wearing the best sprinter’s green jersey), Cadel Evans of Australia (wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey) and Lance Armstrong talk prior to the start of the ninth stage on Tuesday in Morzine-Avoriaz.
Tour notes, results from Stage 9, preview of today’s 111-mile Bastille Day stage, C4
Lance Armstrong, center, speeds down the Colombiere pass during the ninth stage. At left is David de la Fuente of the Astana team, and just behind Armstrong is Astana’s lead rider, Alberto Contador of Spain, who is second in the Tour’s overall standings.