Armstrong says it's time to help Contador
Lance Armstrong has admitted he may have to wave goodbye to his bid for an eighth yellow jersey on the Tour de France after being left for dust by teammate Alberto Contador.
Armstrong was left suffering early on the 8.8km climb to Verbier in stage 15, on which Contador launched a decisive attack that has singled him out as Astana's best chance of winning the race.
The 37-year-old American said afterwards Contador had proved that he is the "strongest rider in the race".
And he indicated that it would now be difficult for him to aim for an eighth Tour crown.
"When Alberto went he showed he is the best rider, showed he is the best climber. You know when everybody is on their limits and you can accelerate again, that's how you win the Tour. Hats off to him," said Armstrong.
"I think after today he demonstrated he is the strongest in the race. I thought I'd feel a little bit better, I didn't. There is no point messing around. I gave everything I had and I wasn't the best.
"There has been a lot of drama about Alberto and me, especially in the media, but at the end of the day we all sit around the table, around the teammates, and the last thing we can do is to lose the Tour. I'm gonna do my best and be a solid teammate."
The 15th stage provided the first real yellow jersey drama since the seventh stage ride to Arcalís in the Pyrenees, where Contador attacked Armstrong to steal back 19secs on the American.
Now with a 1:37 lead on Armstrong, who is second overall, Contador would be expected to have Astana's full commitment as he bids to win the race for the second time. However the 26-year-old Spaniard, who has endured a difficult two weeks' co-habitation with the world's most famous bike rider, stopped short of making those demands.
"We've taken a big step but the last week is difficult, and I expect there will be a lot more to come from the rivals who were there today," said Contador. "For me it's an honour that he (Armstrong) said what he did. He's a big professional. Now everyone in the team has to work for the one same goal."
As Contador flew towards victory after his attack 5.6km from the summit, Armstrong was left with Astana teammate Andreas Klöden to help him ward off attacks from rivals in other teams.
But in the closing kilometres the unexpected happened: Armstrong was left with the German as Bradley Wiggins, Frank Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali and defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre all raced away from him.
Lance Armstrong comes in 1'35 down
The American, who in his seven year reign was more used to leaving rivals in his wake, finished the stage 1:35 down on Contador, and 29secs behind Wiggins, Schleck and Sastre.
Armstrong admitted he had suffered from the pace that Schleck's Saxo Bank team had set early on the climb, which was designed to eliminate as many contenders as possible.
"I suffered. It was very hard. I was a little bit on the limit at the bottom, I think everybody was a bit on the limit," said Armstrong.
"Andreas tried to minimise the losses, but I suffered."
And he said he believed his chances of an eighth Tour title could be over.
"Yes, it will be hard," added Armstrong. "Days like this really shows who's the best. For me that's reality, that's not devastating news or anything."
But while Armstrong may be prepared to work for Contador, the American, who it is rumoured is set to launch a new team based around himself, hinted he would be back stronger in 2010.
"Their might be people out there that expect me to ride like I did in 2004-2005, that's not reality," added Armstrong.
"If I do another year, and I get a season under my belt, maybe get that race condition back. But right now, I didn't have it."
Wiggins excited but calms yellow jersey ambitions
Bradley Wiggins leading Frank Schleck and Vincenzo Nibali
Britain's Bradley Wiggins called for calm on Sunday as he produced a "fantastic" display of climbing on the Tour de France 15th stage to move up to third overall in the standings.
"It's a long way to go, let's not get too excited," said Wiggins, who now has only Lance Armstrong and new race leader Alberto Contador in front of him.
Wiggins, a track specialist who is the reigning world and Olympic pursuit champion, has stunned admirers and rivals alike with a consistent display throughout that has kept him in contention for the yellow jersey.
The 29-year-old Englishman proved there is more than one arrow to his quiver again on the second of three summit finishes when he managed to keep pace with some of the world's best climbers.
In the closing kilometres of the 8.8km ride to the summit finish Wiggins even had the legs to accelerate away from seven-time champion Armstrong.
His move ultimately allowed him to finish fifth at 1:06 behind stage winner Contador, who took the yellow jersey in commanding fashion. Armstrong finished ninth at 1:35 and is now 1:37 behind his Spanish teammate.
Wiggins, who has come into this year's race two kilos lighter than he was at the Giro d'Italia, where he already showed glimpses of his new climbing talent, said his performance was down to positive thinking.
"Fantastic, it's really fantastic, I don't know what to say," said Wiggins. "I'm in great shape, I just keep thinking that. I kept that in my mind."
With three more mountain stages and a 40km time trial, the race for the yellow jersey is only now beginning.
Wiggins, whose best previous finish at the Tour was a 123rd place in 2006, said he is taking it one day at a time.
"I keep going day by day, I keep saying, day by day, I never think too far ahead. I've trained for this mentally and physically. Whatever we do we're going day by day," he insisted.
We'll try until we die, says Schleck
Saxo Bank leader Andy Schleck insisted Sunday his team will "try until we die" to take the Tour de France's yellow jersey off new holder Alberto Contador and his Astana team.
Contador dominated Sunday's 15th stage on the first of three days in the Alps after leaving his yellow jersey rivals for dead on the 8.8km climb into the Swiss ski resort of Verbier.
Schleck, who claimed the white jersey for the highest-finishing rider aged 25 and under last year, was the only contender to counter-attack Contador and in the end his gutsy performance moved him up to fifth overall at 2:26.
The Luxembourger, a former runner-up on the Giro d'Italia, says he will now attack Contador at every opportunity.
"We will try until we die," said Schleck, who insists Contador is beatable after the Spaniard suffered a dreaded bonk (loss of energy due to a lack of food) in March's Paris-Nice race which ultimately cost him the race.
"We saw in the Paris-Nice race that he is as strong, but then he lost it all and he can do that again here."
He added: "Today we saw that Alberto was the strongest - he took off like a rocket and I couldn't catch him.
"I tried to follow when he attacked, but I saw I wasn't getting any closer. After that I tried to cut my losses and keep the rest behind me at a distance. But I think it's only the beginning and there's plenty of racing left."
After Monday's rest day, Schleck says his Saxo Bank team will be ready to work hard to erode the Spaniard's lead on the more difficult stages 16 and 17.
"He took 45 secs on me, but I feel very good. Tomorrow is a rest day, then we start attacking again," said Schleck.
"That wasn't a great mountain stage, once we get the accumulation of several climbs, that when we'll see big differences, it will be an interesting last week."
Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour winner, insisted Contador is still beatable despite his impressive display here which opened a gap of 1:37 between him and second-placed Astana teammate Lance Armstrong.
"Today, Contador was the strongest. From our point of view we rode the perfect race, but he was still stronger," said Riis. "But it was a good day, we saw Lance Armstrong fall down, which we expected, while Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre lost more time.
"Evans and Sastre have to do something in the next few stages and we have to work hard. But anything can still happen and Alberto Contador is not unbeatable."
That was my worst Tour day, sobs Evans
Cadel Evans tries to limit the damage to Contador
An emotional Cadel Evans said he suffered the "worst day" of any Tour de France campaign on Sunday's 15th stage where he slipped back to over four minutes off the leading pace.
Silence's two-time runner-up started the 207.5km stage from Pontarlier 3min 07secs adrift but after the 8.8km climb to the summit here Evans slipped down to 4:27 behind new race leader Alberto Contador.
Attacks by Frank Schleck then Contador put the pressure on all the leading favourites on the final climb before Contador, who rides for Astana, raced off on his own to win the stage and take the race's yellow jersey.
A visibly drained Evans struggled home 1:26 behind Contador, who beat the Australian by 23secs to win the 2007 Tour de France.
"That was the worst day from kilometre zero," said Evans, who has finished second overall for the last two years.
"From kilometre zero, I was having possibly one of the worst days of my Tour de France career on what is the most important day for the classification. Sometimes you just have to do what you can and I don't know about the time loss and the placings, but I think I defended well for a guy who was having a horrible day.
"I don't know what the time losses are or anything. I wasn't death on a bike, but it was a real bad day for me. I had a terrible day, there was not much left in my legs at the end."
Clearly exhausted and emotional after more than five hours in the saddle, Evans was then whisked away for a doping control.
"I need to see the doctor now, I don't know what the problem is," he muttered before being led away.
Sickness forces Boonen out of Tour
Tom Boonen never really featured in this year's Tour
Belgian rider Tom Boonen has withdrawn from the Tour de France ahead of the 15th stage because of sickness, his Quick Step team said on Sunday.
The Paris-Roubaix champion vomited during the night and had a fever, according to the team.
The 28-year-old Belgian sprint specialist was controversially re-admitted to the Tour at the last minute after being initially sidelined by organisers because of a second positive test for cocaine.
After Saturday's 14th stage, he was sitting in 148th place in the overall standings, 1hour 38:42min behind yellow jersey holder Rinaldo Nocentini.
© AFP 2009
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