Garmin-Slipstream cycling team director Jonathan Vaughters admitted current Tour de France leader Alberto Contador is a "fantastic rider" but would not confirm rumours his team was hoping to hire the Spaniard.
Spain's 2007 champion Contador, of Astana, has a virtually unassailable lead of 4:11 over second-placed Luxemburger Andy Schleck ahead of Saturday's 20th and penultimate stage to the summit of Mont Ventoux.
Two days before the end of the race a huge question mark is hanging over the future of the Astana team, whose leaders are Contador and seven-time champion Lance Armstrong.
A day after Armstrong announced the creation of a new team for 2010, Team RadioShack, rumours in Spain claim American outfit Garmin are looking to sign Contador.
Vaughters would not confirm those rumours.
But the American, a former professional racer with Armstrong's US Postal team and French outfit Credit Agricole, told AFP: "Alberto Contador is an incredible rider and would be a fantastic rider to have on any team. But negotiations with riders is not something that we would discuss."
Garmin have a reputation in cycling as one of the most ethical teams in the peloton. In layman's terms that means they are strictly no-doping and put the biological parameters of prospective riders through a battery of independent tests before they even consider hiring them.
Coming a day after Contador dodged reporters' queries about his performances -- following doubts expressed by former Tour de France winner Greg Lemond -- Vaughters added that Contador, just as any other rider, would have to follow strict ethical rules before even being considered.
Vaughters added: "Every single rider who has come to the team has had to release to us their health records including blood profiles and we go through them very thoroughly through independent analysis."
Only disaster on Ventoux will stop Contador, says Schleck
Second-placed Andy Schleck says only a disaster on Mount Ventoux for yellow yersey holder Alberto Contador will give him any chance of winning the Tour de France.
With just two stages left, 24-year-old Schleck is 4:11 behind Contador with his teammate Lance Armstrong in third and determined to finish second behind Spain's 2007 Tour winner.
But Saxo Bank leader Schleck says he will do everything he can to take time off Contador on Saturday's penultimate stage from Montelimar which finishes after the fierce 21.1km climb up Mont Ventoux.
"There is always a chance something will happpen, but he will have to have a really bad day to lose four minutes. We will try and we will see," said Schleck.
Contador, who showed his class on the two previous summit finishes on the race winning one, at Verbier in Switzerland, claims he will tackle Mont Ventoux in a conservative fashion to defend his yellow jersey.
And he added he will do what he can to guarantee teammate and seven-times Tour winner Armstrong a place on the podium.
"On the Ventoux, the number one priority will be to protect my yellow jersey, so I am going to race conservatively," said the Spaniard. "But if the opportunity comes up, I will also help my team -- Lance for example -- to improve his place in the overall standings.
"That I can do, no problem."
Meanwhile, with his brother Frank in sixth at 5:59, Andy Schleck said there is still a chance both brothers could finish on the podium and they will take the fight to Armstrong, who is only slightly ahead at 5:21.
"The goal is to have two on the podium in Paris and then if we can pull that off, we will be pretty happy," said Andy Schleck.
Of all the mountain climbs on the Tour de France, Schleck says the climb up Mount Ventoux -- which infamously claimed the life of British rider Tommy Simpson in 1967 -- is the hardest of all to scale.
"At the beginning you have the steepness and then the wind really kicks in with six kilometres to go," said the Luxemburger. "You have the heat, you have the steepness and on top of that you have the wind, the mistral that blows into your face. It's the hardest one for sure - the Alp d'Huez is a piece of cake compared to the Ventoux."
Team RadioShack slowly taking shape
With his chances of winning this year's yellow jersey all but over, Lance Armstrong said Friday he is already looking at potential riders for his new team at next year's Tour de France.
Spain's Alberto Contador is set to win the yellow jersey for the second time on Sunday following his 2007 success, and with two stages remaining Astana team-mate Armstrong is third in the general classification at 5:21.
Armstrong, 37, who won the last of his seven Tour de France titles in 2005, will lead Team RadioShack in the 2010 race and while no riders have yet been signed, he is looking at several options.
"We haven't signed anybody yet, but there are still a lot of guys on the radar," said the Texan, who finished 12th in Friday's 19th stage behind winner Mark Cavendish. "Obviously there are a few guys I have already been working with like Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Kloeden.
"We have a good bunch of guys here and we want to keep them together," he added. "The structure we have here (at Astana) is the same structure we had at Discovery Channel and United States Postal Services and it's a good one."
Armstrong won six of his seven yellow jerseys with the US Postal Service team, winning his last in 2005 with Discovery Channel. In 2007 Contador won the Tour while riding for Discovery Channel.
Armstrong said he is impressed with up-and-coming United States teenage rider Taylor Phinney, who was crowned individual pursuit world champion earlier this year and currently rides for Armstrong's Trek-Livestrong U23 development team.
The American successfully battled cancer in 1998 to return to cycling and win the first of his seven consecutive yellow jerseys in 1999.
Hushovd humiliated me, says record-setting Cavendish
One of the few sprinters' rows of this year's Tour de France appeared to be resolved, at least for a day, Friday as Mark Cavendish sprung a huge surprise to win his fifth stage of the race.
The 24-year-old Isle of Man rider set a new British record of nine wins on the race and, after beating Norwegian rival Thor Hushovd, relaunched the battle for the sprinters' green jersey.
Last week Cavendish was involved in a nasty spat with Cervelo sprinter Hushovd, who accused him of barging during a sprint on stage 14. The race officials upheld the complaint and Cavendish was disqualified from the stage.
Their row continued and on the last day in the Alps on Wednesday Hushovd launched what turned out to be a gutsy ride which allowed him to add 12 points to his tally, the Norwegian defiantly grabbing at his jersey throughout.
Despite also being a sprinter, Cavendish can not match Hushovd's prowess on the climbs and descents.
But the Manxman conceded on Friday that if Hushovd holds on to the green jersey in Paris on Sunday, he will deserve it.
"After Thor's ride two days ago no one deserves the green jersey more than him," Cavendish said after beating Englishman Barry Hoban's previous record of eight stage wins on the race.
"I can't compete with that, that was humiliating to me the other day. It was a beautiful ride."
Despite his undisputed top end speed, Cavendish's victories usually come after a perfectly orchestrated lead-out to the finish line by his committed Columbia team.
As their last man, it leaves them to jump out from behind the lead-out man's wheel in the final 150-300 metres and launch a dash for the line.
It is a benefit few of his rivals possess, and Cavendish admitted: "He's fought for the jersey, he hasn't been put in the best position for it."
But Cavendish's win, which gave him 35 points to the 30 won by Hushovd for second place, means their battle could still be fought out on the Champs Elysees on Sunday.
After starting the day with a 30-point lead, Hushovd now has a 25-point cushion.
When it came to their duel at the finish, Hushovd hinted that the efforts he spent on Wednesday's audacious ride in the Alps had finally taken their toll.
"In the final sprint I tried to pull through and made it back to him at the end, but I was very tired," said Hushovd. "For me this was the hardest stage of the race. It was non-stop racing all day over undulating terrain and there were a lot of crosswinds and sometimes a headwind.
"My lead over Cavendish is still 25 points but I will be fighting for every last point," he added.
Saturday's stage is a 167km ride from Montelimar to the summit of Mont Ventoux, which is likely to host a battle for the podium places on the Tour.
It has two intermediate sprints, where six, four and two points can be won, at the 48km and 138.5km mark.
© 2009 AFP & BikeRadar
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