Tour de France news round-up - stage 14

Underwhelming Armstrong; LeMond on Armstrong

Schleck keeps fans guessing with yellow jersey games

Andy Schleck has stressed since he took the Tour de France lead on stage nine last week that his tactics will be designed to reward him with the yellow jersey in Paris.

Going on the stubborn poker game he used against reigning champion Alberto Contador on the 14th stage of the race Sunday, fans of the talented Luxembourger may be wondering whether that is still possible.

Schleck ultimately finished the 184.5km stage from Revel to the second high mountain finish of the race here with his 31sec lead on Contador intact.

Yet with the Spaniard being tipped to take significant time off Schleck in the penultimate stage time trial next Saturday, the Saxo Bank climber arguably cannot afford to leave the Pyrenees with a cushion of less than two minutes.

Having finished runner-up by over four minutes in 2009, Schleck on Sunday arguably failed to test his own belief that, at least on the climbs, Contador is not quite so impenetrable as he was last year.

Nevertheless, he believes he won round one of the four being held in the Pyrenees.

"This is just a guess, but I guess he's not happy. He didn't lose any time but he didn't gain any either," said Schleck.

"His plan was to take the yellow (jersey) today. It didn't work, he didn't gain a single second on me and I even think I was a little better than him."

Although fans would expect Contador to have to attack Schleck to claw back his deficit, the Spaniard is in no hurry.

And, he arguably emerged the winner on Sunday having taken one step closer, without conceding any time, to the 50km time trial next Saturday.

Schleck's obsession with Contador meant he stuck to the Spaniard like glue when he tried twice, at the 5km and 4km to go marks, to shake the Luxembourger off his wheel.

Schleck even allowed Spaniard Samuel Sanchez and Russian Denis Menchov to go on the offensive virtually unchallenged, before reacting inside the final two kilometres with Contador to limit their advantage to 14secs.

"For the moment, Menchov and Sanchez are not dangerous," explained Schleck.

 Unlike the Luxembourger, Contador appears to be keeping his innermost thoughts to himself.

"We were more or less equal on the climb," said Contador.

"The way it was going it could have benefited other riders, like Menchov and Samuel (Sanchez), who are very strong riders. So we decided to race together in the end to limit our losses to them."

Contador claimed the climb to Ax-3-Domaines was not hard enough for him to launch a worthy attack on Schleck. But there will be chances aplenty in the coming days.

Monday's 15th stage from Pamiers notably features the 19.3km climb over the Port de Bales before finishing 21.5km later down in Bagneres-de-Luchon.

The 16th stage Tuesday will take the peloton over four climbs, including the imposing Col du Tourmalet before finishing on a downhill again in Pau.

After Wednesday's rest day, a tough stage 17 finishes with a 18.6km ascension to the summit of the Tourmalet - the race's final climb before another potential decider on Saturday.

What happens in between is anybody's guess.

Schleck is confident he can avoid making the same mistakes he has made against Contador in the past. And that appears to mean he will wait on the Spaniard to attack first.

"I've made enough mistakes that have allowed him to drop me because I passed him," he added.

"But I've learned a lot from my mistakes."

Underwhelming Armstrong drops outside Tour's top 30

Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong dropped further down the Tour de France overall standings after another underwhelming performance in the mountains on Sunday. However the American has not ruled out trying to close his final Tour de France with a 26th and final stage win.

Frenchman Christophe Riblon of AG2R took a deserved maiden stage win on the race after a 184.5km race from Revel which took in one unclassified (hors categorie) mountain pass before finishing on the summit in Ax-3-Domaines.

Armstrong was dropped early into the 15.5km climb of the Port de Pailheres as the pace of Astana took a toll on many of the podium hopefuls.

The American was left to finish the race with RadioShack teammate Janez Brajkovic, the pair crossing the finish line 15:14 adrift of Riblon, who crossed the line 1:08 ahead of Spain's reigning champion Alberto Contador (Astana) and race leader Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank).

Although he would like to add one more stage win to his tally, Armstrong knows from experience that won't be easy to come by.

"I'd still like to get one. The race is hard, nobody's going to give it away, back in our heyday we did not give anything away," he said.

"So I don't want anybody to say, 'hey let the old man have one'. That's not what this event is about, it's a hard sport and the best guy's supposed to win on a daily basis and on a three-week basis.

"I got 25 (stage wins), I don't need somebody to hand me one."

He added: "I will do my best, (but) as you know we're running out of chances."

Armstrong came into the race hoping to at least grab another podium place following his third place finish behind champion Contador and runner-up Schleck in 2009.

That achievement came after a near four-year absence from the sport, but it seems a lot has changed in a year.

Armstrong, 38, lost nearly 12 minutes to his rivals in the first high mountain stage at Morzine-Avoriaz in the Alps, signalling the virtual end to his campaign.

Since then, and despite racing amid damaging allegations of doping levelled by former US Postal teammate Floyd Landis, he is simply soaking up the atmosphere.

"I sat up and I enjoyed it. It's a unique experience for me to have the time to look around, look at people," said Armstrong, who is now 38th overall at 39:44 behind Schleck.

"I'm not going to win the Tour but I'm going out there to have a good time."

RadioShack's top chance of a podium place is Californian Levi Leipheimer.

Leipheimer was among the many big names dropped on the 7.8km climb to Ax-3-Domaines, eventually finishing 11th at 1:53 behind Riblon to drop one place to seventh overall at 4:51.

LeMond says probe could 'end' Armstrong - report

Greg LeMond believes a federal probe into fellow Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong should not be taken lightly, and could even bring about the downfall of the world's most famous cyclist.

"Up until now, he has achieved great things, if you consider he did it fairly, which I don't believe," LeMond said in an interview conducted in French with the Journal Du Dimanche newspaper.

"For him, it's the beginning of the end."

Seven-time champion Armstrong is racing his final Tour campaign amid damaging accusations by former teammate Floyd Landis that their former team, US Postal, was involved in systematic doping practices.

A federal investigation into Landis's claims has been launched and is being led by Jeff Novitzky, the same federal agent whose probe into the BALCO doping scandal brought about the downfall of athletics star Marion Jones.

Grand jury subpoenas were issued to potential witnesses in the probe this week in a move that demonstrates how seriously the authorities are taking allegations made by Landis.

LeMond, along with several of Armstrong's former teammates, is one of several witnesses who has been issued a subpoena. Although he has "yet to decide" on whether he will go, his testimony could be valuable.

The three-time yellow jersey champion has been an advocate of clean cycling for the past decade, and subsequent questioning of Armstrong's record-setting performances have led to the pair having a turbulent relationship.

Some fans claim LeMond is bitter because Armstrong went on to surpass his record for an American on the race, but he has not limited his queries to Armstrong. Last year he questioned whether Spain's reigning champion, Alberto Contador, was riding clean.

LeMond said he has taken no particular enjoyment from seeing Armstrong suffer on what has been a disastrous farewell campaign.

He believes the Texan faces more pressing concerns than the multiple crashes he has suffered in the past two weeks.

"Seeing him suffer doesn't affect me at all. I would even have preferred it if he hadn't crashed," added LeMond, who won the race in 1986, 1989 and 1990.

He added: "The federal investigation is very serious, more than people believe.

"Given everything that he has been accused of recently, I'm even surprised he decided to race the Tour. I don't know how he's managed to stay concentrated on the race.

"It will be interesting to see if he collaborates with the investigation."

Armstrong said earlier this week he would be prepared to cooperate with any investigation, provided it did not become a "witch hunt".

"Like I said, as long as we have a legitimate and credible and fair investigation, we'll be happy to cooperate, but I'm not going to participate in any kind of witch hunt," he said.

And while Armstrong continues to question the credibility of Landis, who denied for four years that he had doped before finally confessing two months ago in a bid to "clear his conscience", LeMond has no doubts.

He claimed that friends of Landis were even being threatened by Armstrong.

"Listen, Landis spoke out because Armstrong was going after him. He made threats against his (Landis's) friends," LeMond alleged.

"I believe Landis because everything he's said, I've already heard. There's a major difference between a guy like Ivan Basso (who was banned for two years for doping) and Armstrong. Basso doesn't threaten people!

"When it comes to manipulating people, Armstrong is the undisputed champion."

When confronted by the report on France 2 television after the 14th stage, Armstrong pointed the finger at LeMond and his victory on the race in 1989.

"We will have the opportunity to tell the truth to the authorities, and Greg LeMond will tell the truth about 1989 I hope," said Armstrong, who is now 38th overall at 39:44 behind Luxembourg's Andy Schleck.

"Because he, too, needs to tell the truth. I have nothing to hide."

© AFP 2010

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