Tour news roundup, rest day 1

Alonso wants Contador; Armstrong on Evans; Sastre, Schleck, Williams on Armstrong; Roche

Fernando Alonso wants team headed by Contador - report

Spain's two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso is planning to set up a cycling team headed by his compatriot Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour de France winner, a newspaper said Monday.

Alonso has already discussed the project with Contador, who is delighted to take part in it even though he still has a year left on his contract with his current team Astana, sports daily Marca reported without citing any source.

Contador brushed off the story.

"I only want to focus on the Tour de France, I will talk about my future after that. This is only a rumour and I have a contract with Astana for another year."

The team could be sponsored by one of the current sponsors of Alonso's Renault team, including Santander, Spain's largest bank and one of Europe's biggest, the newspaper added.

Alonso, the Formula One world champion in 2005 and 2006, was present at the start of the Tour de France on July 4 in Monaco in which Contador is taking part.

Contador is now second overall in the Tour, six seconds behind yellow jersey holder Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy following the race's ninth stage on Sunday.

Evans must wait to go in for kill, says Armstrong

Cadel Evans has been warned by the biggest Tour de France champion of all time that only a killer's instinct, and a little patience, will give him any chance of winning this year's race.

After nine stages, talk around the team buses suggests that the Silence team leader's three-minute deficit - due mainly to a disastrous team time trial performance on stage four - has already ruled him out of contention. And a futile attack on the Envalira climb early on Saturday's eighth stage, which Evans believed was a chance to claw back time, has done little to instil fear into rivals like Armstrong, or his teammate Alberto Contador.

Evans, the runner-up the past two years, still remains hopeful that a difficult third week of racing in the hilly Vosges and the high Alps will put him back in contention.

After the stage Evans, whose 2008 campaign was hampered by injuries sustained in a crash, told French television: "The first third of the Tour de France has gone well, physically. Mentally, it's a different story.

"I'm three minutes down on classification. But in the Alps I'll have more opportunities to try things."

Armstrong, who sits third overall at 08secs off the leading pace of Italy's unlikely champion Rinaldo Nocentini, and only two seconds off Contador, called Evans' attempt to move up the standings on Saturday "gutsy".

But he added that the Australian, and fellow rivals like Carlos Sastre and Andy Schleck, would have to choose the right moment, and be more convincing, if they were to have a stab at destabilising the dominant Astana team.

"If I was those guys, I would wait," Armstrong said after Sunday's ninth stage over the Col d'Aspin and Col de Tourmalet, won by Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo from a two-up sprint in Tarbes. "I think this race is going to get a lot harder and our team won't look the same in the third week as it does now.

"It's still too close and honestly, if I was Cadel Evans or Andy Schleck or Carlos Sastre, I would be waiting. I would wait for my moment in the Alps, on Mont Ventoux or whatever. And I would stick it in as hard as I could, I would pull the knife out and go as hard as I could."

While battling rivals from other teams, Armstrong will also be on the lookout for moves from Contador. The pair have been battling for Astana's leadership and Armstrong admitted Sunday, for the first time, that tension exists.

As for Evans, Armstrong said the Australian's attempt to distance the peloton, over 150km from the finish, on Saturday was borne more out of frustration than real hope.

"It was a gutsy move, but I think Cadel is sensitive to the perception that he never attacks," Armstrong told AFP. "Sometimes when people are sensitive to that they try to compensate, it might not have been a move that we would have made but you've got to give him credit for trying."

With four Astana riders currently in the top six of the race's general classification, the Kazakh-backed team has numerous tactical cards at their disposal.

Carlos Sastre says follow Astana

Defending yellow jersey champion Carlos Sastre said Monday he would be choosing his moments carefully when the Tour de France moves up a gear next week in the Alps.

"Astana are the strongest team in the race at the moment, and when it comes to the Alps next week it is up to us (rivals) to react to whatever they decide to do," Sastre said Monday on the race's first rest day.

After the first nine of 21 stages the Astana team of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong have forged significant advantages over their rivals and will go into the Alps next week as the team to beat.

Italian Rinaldo Nocentini of the AG2R team will wear the race leader's yellow jersey when racing resumes on Tuesday's 10th stage although Contador is only 6secs behind and Armstrong 8 adrift.

The deficits of Astana's direct rivals range from the 1:49 of Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, of Saxo Bank, to the 3:07 held by two-time runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia, who rides for Silence.

Sastre, who after the penultimate stage time trial last year held off Evans to grab his first victory on the race, is currently 16th at 2:52.

Having come through three Pyrenees mountain stages relatively unscathed, Sastre admitted that with only one summit finish last week, there was little opportunity to attack.

"The terrain hasn't really been perfect for attacking on," he added. "I wanted to do something at Arcalis (on the seventh stage) but there was a headwind. It was too difficult."

It was at Arcalis on Friday that Contador attacked late in the stage to take 19secs off his own teammate Armstrong, leapfrogging the American into second place.

The next day Evans' produced what was termed by some as a desperate attack on the climb to the summit of Envalira, 150km from the finish line, before being reeled in by a peloton being driven by Astana.

With an individual time trial and a total of five climbing stages still left, the race to finish first in Paris is only just beginning.

Armstrong, who won the race a record seven times consecutively, said Sunday: "Maybe we're halfway through the race, but as far as selection (elimination), we're only 25 percent done."

Sastre, a climber who, when pushed, can also time trial, suggested that when he attacks, he wants to make it count: "They don't pay me to put on a show."

Armstrong can win eighth Tour title, insists Andy Schleck

Lance Armstrong's impressive form on this year's Tour de France may have taken some people by surprise, but Saxo Bank leader Andy Schleck insisted Monday the American can win an eighth title. The 24-year-old Luxembourger is 1min 49secs behind Italian yellow jersey holder Rinaldo Nocentini.

But Schleck says Armstrong, the seven-time champion who is participating for the first time since retiring in 2005, can win the Tour - and ominously for his rivals - is getting stronger.

Schleck, who won the white jersey for the best placed rider aged 25 and under last year, says he has been watching him improve since May's Giro d'Italia when Armstrong finished 12th.

Now, the American is third overall at only 8secs behind Nocentini and only 2secs behind Spanish teammate Alberto Contador ahead of the resumption of racing Tuesday on the 10th stage.

"Armstrong can win the Tour de France for sure, I saw it at the Giro," said Schleck, who raced in May's Tour of Switzerland rather than the Giro.

"Although he wasn't amongst the leaders, he was in good shape. I think he is improving - he's strong, he's slim and, of course, he's got a good motor."

Astana have four riders in the top six of the Tour's general classification, with American Levi Leipheimer in fourth and Andreas Klöden of Germany in sixth. But Schleck says Armstrong and Contador, the 2007 winner, are the main threats from the Kazakhstan-backed team.

"People say Astana have main four cards to play on this Tour de France," said Schleck. "But for me, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden aren't really 'cards', they have two leaders in Armstrong and Contador."

Contador knocked Armstrong down into third place with a powerful finish on Friday's seventh stage from Barcelona up to Arcalis in Andorra, the only summit finish of three days in the Pyrenees.

But Schleck says he would be surprised if the Spaniard can produce such impressive climbing in the Alps.

"Contador is not unbeatable," said Schleck. "It will not be the same story in the Alps, which will be different from the Pyrenees.

"The stages there are tougher and I don't think Contador can make big differences in the Alps."

Oscar-winner Williams salutes battling Armstrong

Academy-award winning actor and cycling enthusiast Robin Williams paid tribute to his friend Lance Armstrong's determination to return and win an eighth Tour de France.

The 57-year-old, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1998 for the film Good Will Hunting, visited the race and saw Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo win the race's ninth stage held over 160.5km from Saint Gaudens to Tarbes.

Italian Rinaldo Nocentini retained the yellow jersey while seven-times Tour winner Armstrong remains in third at eight seconds behind.

It is the second time this Tour a Hollywood A-list star has visited Armstrong after Ben Stiller dropped into Marseille last Monday to visit the cyclist after the pair appeared in the movie Dodgeball together.

"He's a great friend and it's great to hang out with him," said Williams, who lives near Armstrong's Astana team-mate Levi Leipheimer in California. "You have to say they are a great team, anybody who rides in conditions like today, you have to salute them."

Williams praised cancer-survivor Armstrong's return to the Tour after a four-year break in a bid to win an eighth title and highlight the fight against the disease.

"It's wild to see him back on the Tour," said Williams. "You'd think after seven wins he'd think 'c'est fini', but no, he is back for one more time.

"That is pretty ballsy. To race the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of California already this year, it's kind of great and he is doing it for many reasons which is wonderful to see."

This is not the first time Williams has visited Armstrong on the Tour, having been a regular when the American raced for the US Postal and Discovery Channel teams.

"People watching at home have no idea how hard this event is," said Williams. "On TV the mountain stages look a bit steep, when you are there they are insanely steep, even in the car you have to look through the sunroof to see the top when you are at the bottom.

"They are coming down the mountains at 60 miles an hour. Someone told me in the Giro a rider fell 600ft and lived, that gives you an idea. That is a long way down."

Williams could not resist cracking a joke when asked if other stars would be visiting Armstrong.

"Paris Hilton has to come to the final stage, after all they named the city after her," he said.

Nicolas Roche takes first steps on Tour

As the son of one of cycling's greats, Nicolas Roche knows he has plenty to live up to.

And after a tough first nine stages of racing on his Tour de France debut, the France-born Irish national road race champion is not expecting the race to get any easier.

Roche, the son of former Tour de France and Giro d'Italia champion Stephen, has spent the past few days in the unexpected position of battling to keep teammate Rinaldo Nocentini in the race's yellow jersey.

Although putting his French team AG2R in the spotlight, it also put pressure on them to honour their duties of defending the yellow jersey - and over the tough climbing terrain of the Pyrenees.

"It's been great riding first Tour and having the opportunity straight away to ride for the yellow jersey," Roche told AFP. "I wasn't expecting that to be honest with you. The climb out of Andorra (on the eighth stage) was really brutal. For me, it's not the best way to start as stage."

Ahead of the race's rest day Monday AG2R still have the race lead, and for the time being, race favourites like Lance Armstrong and his Astana teammate Alberto Contador not having to defend the yellow jersey is a blessing.

Spain's 2007 champion Contador is second overall at 6secs back while Armstrong is a further two seconds behind, and it is only a matter of time before Nocentini hands over the yellow jersey.

"I think Nocentini will have difficulties going through the Alps, and then (Vladimir) Efimkin will become our GC man, so there will be a lot of work and a lot of pressure," added Roche.

Before then, there are three stages where Roche should be looking at himself.

Although describing himself as "a slow climber that sprints fast, or a slow sprinter that can climb", he hopes to be given the chance to join a breakaway that, preferably, finishes on a slight incline.

"Everybody comes to the Tour with the dream of a stage win," said Roche, who finished runner-up on stage 18 on his Tour of Spain debut last year.

"I decided this year I just wanted to do a good prologue, a good team time trial and then get up there in the sprints, just for my personal progression because I'm not a sprinter but I just love being in there.

"Now these few days are gone it's going to be a bit more open for breakaways and I'd love to get in one of those breakaways. I'm in no man's land at the moment. I'm not really a climber but when I go good I can climb and when I'm going alright I can sprint as well.

"I've had a couple of top five's in bunch sprints with riders like (Alejandro) Valverde. When it's a harder finish I'm usually there."

A respected up-and-coming talent in his own right, Roche admits that it's sometimes hard to live in the shadow of father Stephen, who famously won the Tour, the Giro and the world championships in 1987.

"It's true I get a lot more media interest than if I was called any other name," said the 25-year-old. "But on the other hand I get extra pressure as well because he has succeeded in many of the biggest races. Sometimes it's hard for people to understand that it's not wrong if I don't win the Tour de France as a 25 or 26 year old."

© AFP 2009

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