Tour de France news round-up: stage 9

Schleck defiant; Armstrong support; Wiggins for top 10; Landis probe

Schleck defiant as yellow jersey battle begins

Andy Schleck promised a duel of epic proportions with Alberto Contador in the Pyrenean stages of this year's Tour de France after defiantly taking the race lead Tuesday.

Schleck, a climbing specialist who rides for Saxo Bank, started the day 20sec down on overnight leader Cadel Evans but finished the tough ninth stage with the yellow jersey on his back for the first time in his career.

As Evans struggled to keep pace on the 25.5km climb over the legendary Madeleine riding with a fractured arm, Schleck spent the latter half of the ascension trying to shake Contador off his wheel.

The Spaniard, a two-time winner who has also won the Tours of Italy and Spain, was not for shaking and eventually the pair finished the race together to leave many of their rivals even further off the pace.

Schleck now holds a 41sec lead on Contador ahead of four days in the Pyrenees. When they are over, the penultimate stage time trial could still decide the race.

Up until recently Contador has been considered unbeatable on the Grand Tours, having won the last four in which he has competed.

Schleck, however, is confident he can give the Spaniard something to chew on when the race heads back up to high altitude on Sunday.

"It's possible that he might be stronger in the Pyrenees than here in the Alps, but so will I," said Schleck, whose brother Frank crashed out of the race on stage three.

"I still think the Pyrenees will decide the Tour, but it's easier for me now because I have only one rider to look after. I don't think other riders can come back into us."

After only two stages in the high mountains the 10-strong field that started the race with big ambitions now have to eat humble pie in what has quickly become a two-horse race.

Euskaltel's Samuel Sanchez, the Olympic champion, is a surprise third at 2:45, Russia's Denis Menchov is fourth at 2:58 and Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck is fifth at 3:31.

Other podium contenders include American Levi Leipheimer, sixth at 3:59, Dutchman Robert Gesink, seventh at 4:22, and Ivan Basso, 10th at 5:09.

Carlos Sastre, the 2008 champion, is 15th at 7:13, Britain's Bradley Wiggins 14th at 7:18 and Evans 18th overall at 7:47.

Schleck played catch-up to Contador for most of last year's race after the Spaniard struck early in the Alps to take time off his rivals.

The Luxembourger added: "The difference from this year to last year was that I am ahead of him on GC (general classification), not the other way round," he added.

"If he wants to win this, he's got to attack me."

Contador hit back after the stage: "I know what my aim is now, and which wheel I have to follow - Andy Schleck's."

But Schleck, who raced ahead of Contador on the eighth stage to win at Morzine-Avoriaz on Sunday, believes there are chinks in Contador's armour.

"Two days ago he was a little bit weaker. It looks like he's a little bit up and down," Schleck added.

"I hope I can attack one of his weak days so that I can gain more time on him. I really think I'll be better in the Pyrenees than him."

Armstrong happy in support role for Leipheimer

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong admitted Tuesday it will be tough to cap his final Tour de France campaign with a spectacular stage win in the Pyrenees.

Armstrong crashed virtually out of contention for an eighth yellow jersey on the first day in the high mountains Sunday when he trailed home almost 12 minutes behind Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.

That setback has left him in a new role as support rider for fellow American Levi Leipheimer, the best-placed rider in RadioShack.

A thrilling ninth stage here Tuesday reduced the yellow jersey field even further, with Schleck taking the yellow jersey from Cadel Evans to leave the Australian virtually out of contention at 7min 47sec off the pace.

Reigning champion Alberto Contador is now second at 41secs behind Schleck, with fellow Spaniard Samuel Sanchez in third at 2:45, Russian Denis Menchov fourth at 2:58 and Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck fifth at 3:31.

Armstrong started Tuesday's race, which included four mountain passes and the 25.5km long ascension of the Col de la Madeleine, in 39th place at 13:26 behind Evans.

And after he spent the day keeping a close watch on riders who could threaten Leipheimer's chances of a podium, the 38-year-old American was left in 31st at 15:54.

"I found myself in a position where, as we said earlier we're trying to get Levi up as much as we can, I was there with two guys that are threats for him for the podium - (Jurgen) Van den Broeck and (Ivan) Basso," said Armstrong.

"There wasn't much I could do but sit there (with them). I wasn't exactly ready to jump away either."

Armstrong crashed twice on stage eight, picking up a knock to his hip which he said Sunday had hampered his bid to close his deficit to the peloton.

Admitting he "felt better than I thought I would", he was coy when asked whether he would try to light up the third week of the race when the yellow jersey will be decided over four stages in the Pyrenees.

"I'll try, but there's a lot of guys that want to do that too," added Armstrong.

"We'll see, we'll look for the opportunity but at the same time you've got to have the power. The Pyrenees are tough. They're steep, and if the heat continues it's just going to make it even harder.

"But I keep progressing and getting better and better, after the crash, I'll be there. I'll be close."

Leipheimer lost ground on the leaders on the climb to the summit of the Madeleine and after the 32km descent the American finished the stage 10th at

2:07 behind French stage winner Sandy Casar and 2:05 behind Contador and Schleck.

The Californian is now sixth overall at 3:59, and despite having several podium rivals to contend with Armstrong believes Leipheimer will look to limit his losses before the penultimate stage time trial.

"He has the fortune of knowing that he has 50km at the end, it's a good course for him, it's flat and straightforward," he said.

Sky crashes in on Wiggins' Tour ambitions

Brad Wiggins

Britain's Bradley Wiggins swapped his Tour de France podium ambitions for hopes of a top ten finish after an epic day of racing Tuesday.

The race's ninth stage was only the second day in the high mountains, but with four mountain passes including the 25.5km ascension of the Madeleine it lived up to it's expectations as a heartbreaker for some contenders.

While Cadel Evans was arguably the day's biggest loser after he tumbled from first to 18th place and 7min 47sec off the pace of new leader Andy Schleck, Wiggins barely fared better than the Australian.

Team Sky's leader, who finished fourth last year, was left limiting his losses as the pace increased on the Madeleine before eventually trailing home

4:53 on Schleck to sit 16th overall at 7:18 behind the Luxembourger.

Wiggins' dream of a top three finish may be over, but he was gracious in defeat.

"That's just the way it goes. That's life, unfortunately," he said. "You try your hardest, you do everything possible to be in good shape and it obviously not with the best of them.

"It's only sport at the end of the day."

Wiggins said during the rest day that the race will be decided by minutes, and not seconds, this year because of the four tough days of climbing which will begin Sunday in the Pyrenees.

That prediction appears true already, and the race is only at the halfway stage.

Schleck now has just a 41sec lead on reigning champion Alberto Contador, who countered several attacks by the Saxo Bank leader on the Madeleine climb before both went on to finish two seconds after French stage winner Sandy Casar.

Euskaltel's Samuel Sanchez, the Olympic champion, is a surprise third at 2:45, Russia's Denis Menchov is fourth at 2:58 and Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck is fifth at 3:31.

Other podium contenders include American Levi Leipheimer, sixth at 3:59, Dutchman Robert Gesink, seventh at 4:22, and Ivan Basso, 10th at 5:09.

Wiggins said he had some comfort knowing just where his limits stood, but he refused to throw in the towel just yet.

"At least you know where you stand - you haven't got to wait two and a half weeks to know where you stand," he added.

"I'll just do my best every day. I don't think the GC's (general classification) finished totally in terms of getting a respectable position and that may be top 10 for me, something like that.

"I don't want to give up and throw my toys out of the pram, finish at the back or go home, so I'm going to just push on every day and maybe just recalibrate, say top 10 is now the goal.

"We put everything into it, it hasn't worked. It's not because we haven't tried."

Fellow Briton David Millar, of Garmin-Transitions, narrowly escaped missing the time cut-off limit for the stage, the Scot suffering through the stage to finish 181st and last at 42:45 behind Casar.

Doping probe results in subpoenas - report

US authorities have issued grand jury subpoenas to witnesses in a probe of possible fraud and doping charges against cyclist Lance Armstrong and others, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

In an article posted on its website, the newspaper cited several people briefed on the case who requested anonymity.

According to the Times, the subpoenas demonstrate how seriously authorities are taking allegations made by US cyclist Floyd Landis, who has said that doping was endemic in the US Postal team in the early 2000s, when he competed on it with seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong.

Armstrong and others accused by Landis have denied the allegations and called into question the credibility of Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for doping.

© AFP 2010

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