ARCALIS, Andorra – In the Tour de France duel between teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, the first big mountain stage went to the Spaniard.
Contador, the 2007 winner, unleashed a burst of speed Friday in the last uphill mile into the tiny Pyrenees principality of Andorra – and Armstrong didn’t lay chase.
By the end of the seventh stage, Contador had bumped the seven-time champion from second to third in the overall standings. Perhaps more important, he showed he has the legs for this unrelenting three-week test.
The 140-mile trek from Barcelona, Spain, to the ski resort of Arcalis was the longest stage of this Tour. It was won by Brice Feillu of France and produced a new leader in Rinaldo Nocentini.
Nocentini, who joined Feillu in a nine-man breakaway, became the first Italian in nine years to seize the yellow jersey and ended the six-day hold on the lead by Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara.
Contador is six seconds behind Nocentini, a Tour newcomer at age 31 and a stage winner at the Tour of California this year. Armstrong dropped one spot to third and is eight seconds back.
The question of the day was whether strong climbers would attack Armstrong and Contador, hoping to cut into their deficits from the two time trials during the last week.
Armstrong entered the day a fraction of a second behind Cancellara. Contador trailed by 19 seconds in third.
Astana’s plan had been to let less threatening breakaway riders go while squelching attacks from more serious rivals like Cadel Evans of Australia, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg or 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre of Spain.
After Evans, a two-time Tour runner-up, took his shot in the final climb, Armstrong hugged the Australian’s back wheel. Then Contador struck.
Withstanding the headwinds along the slopes that make solo riding exhausting, the Spaniard overcame his gap with Armstrong. He insisted his real motivation was gaining time on other contenders.
“I was just asserting my position against my main rivals,” Contador said. “Nothing was planned in advance, but when I saw Evans and Schleck didn’t budge, I sensed the opportunity because I had good legs.”
The plan at Astana had been to wait for rivals to strike, not gain time on each other. But after Armstrong used the wind and his wits in Stage 3 with a move that vaulted him ahead of Contador in the standings, the gloves may now be off.
Armstrong said he had foreseen a possible move by Contador.
“It was a fine day,” he said. “I think overall we’re fine. Yesterday I said I expected him to assert himself in the race.”
Armstrong has shown solid but not outstanding form at this Tour, the centerpiece of his comeback after 3 1/2 years of retirement. His smart riding has outshone his physical prowess.
“Overall, I feel pretty good,” he said. “Things didn’t quite go according to plan that we set up earlier, but it didn’t matter.”
For Contador, who could have the makings of one of the great cyclists, there’s no doubt about his physical ability at age 26. His conundrum will be managing the pressure, and the questions about whether he or Armstrong is better suited to be team leader.
“I’m really tired of the question about leadership at Astana,” Contador said. “Let’s just watch the Tour and see what unfolds and hopefully it will be clear by the end of the race.”
The big showdown figures to come on the next to last day, when riders are set to scale the celebrated Mont Ventoux – a climb that Armstrong says is the Tour’s toughest.
Two more days of racing in the Pyrenees await before Monday’s rest day. Today’s stage is a 110-mile route featuring three tough climbs and finishing in Saint-Girons, France.
Contador likes his chances.
“I know the road to Arcalis,” he said. “This is my terrain as well.
“When I’m in the mountains it’s like I’m at home.”