Lance Armstrong has finally admitted that tension exists in his Astana team as both he and Spanish teammate Alberto Contador bid to win the Tour de France.
Contador, the 2007 champion who started as the yellow jersey favourite, is second overall only six seconds off the pace ahead of Monday's rest day and a crucial spell of racing towards the end of this week.
As their rivals look for ways to close deficits incurred in a thrilling first week, it seems the real battle for supremacy is taking place in one team. Speculation has been rife since Armstrong joined Astana last year that he and Contador would end up duelling each other, and not their rivals, for the yellow jersey.
And although Astana have so far tried to play down talk of tension, Armstrong admitted on French television Sunday: "The honest truth is that there's a little tension.
"Alberto is strong, and he's very ambitious."
Cancer-survivor Armstrong won the race a record seven times in succession between 1999-2005 and is returning to the Tour after ending a three-and-a-half-year retirement. He said if 26-year-old Contador, who last year won the Tour of Italy and the Tour of Spain, proved his worth he would accept having to play second fiddle in the team.
"If he proves to be the strongest in the race, there's nothing I can do," added Armstrong.
However, the 37-year-old, who has not ruled out a return to the Tour de France in 2010, has shown little evidence of only wanting to support Contador.
The American last week prompted some early race drama when he took advantage of a wind-aided echelon on the third stage to distance Contador, and many other rivals, by 41secs. After the following day's team time trial, won by Astana, Armstrong moved up to second place overall, only 0.22sec off Fabian Cancellara's leading pace.
But on the first day in the high mountains on Friday, Contador got his own back. As Frenchman Brice Feillu raced to victory at Arcalís ski station, Contador attacked Armstrong's group to finish 19secs ahead of the American.
It put the Spaniard into second place overall, and back in the spotlight.
Armstrong added that if Contador gave a repeat performance in the climbing stages of next week, he would have to abide by the team's rules - although they, for now, seem to be unfathomable.
"If that happens on the way to Verbier (on stage 15), there's nothing I can do about that. I have to follow the (team) rules," Armstrong added.
In theory that would mean Armstrong sitting back, as he did at Arcalís, and helping Contador by only attacking himself if their yellow jersey rivals made moves to counter the Spaniard.
Earlier Sunday, however, the American told reporters that a "very difficult" six-day spell next week would show who deserved to be given the team's full support.
"We'll have more moments, we'll see who's truly the strongest," said Armstrong.
He later added on television: "The Tour is only 25 percent done. Maybe we're halfway done, but in terms of selection (elimination) we're only 25 percent done."
Armstrong says 2010 Tour could be on the cards
Lance Armstrong has not ruled out extending his comeback to have a crack at the 2010 Tour de France.
The 37-year-old seven-time champion is currently third in the race's general classification, only eight seconds behind Italian Rinaldo Nocentini, after the ninth stage on Sunday.
Ahead of a second week of racing which could well decide this year's yellow jersey, the American who initially retired after his record seventh victory in 2005 said he may return to the race next year.
Asked on French television whether this would be his last participation at the Tour de France, Armstrong said: "Probably not."
Armstrong backs team's protest over radio ban
Lance Armstrong on Sunday backed a protest by the Tour de France's top teams over plans to ban radio contact between riders and their team managers on two of next week's stages.
Armstrong's Astana team is one of 15 to have now signed the petition against radio silence for stages 10 and 13, which was submitted on Saturday while French outfit Cofidis added their signatures on Sunday.
"I don't agree with it (the radio ban)," said seven-times Tour winner Armstrong. "The race evolves, the bikes evolve, everything evolves.
"The cameras have evolved, the mics has evolved and suddenly we are going to go back to a situation where directors will have to ride up into the peloton to give orders to riders - that is not a good thing.
"I remember those days, I have been around long enough to remember them, a few of the riders think it is a cute idea, but I don't. And the Tour de France is not the place to experiment, if you want to roll something out, do it in the Pyrenees or some place else, not on the Tour."
During each stage's racing, team managers normally communicate with their riders, who wear ear-pieces, by radio to advise on tactics, approaching hazards and other important information.
But Tour organisers, following initial discussions between the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the teams' own representatives' groups, are insisting on a return, albeit just for two stages, to the old days to make the race more exciting and to test the riders' initiative.
There will be radio silence for both Tuesday's 194.5km stage from Limoges to Issoudon and Friday's 200km-long ride from Vittel to Colmar.
Astana boss Johan Bruyneel says the teams are now waiting for a response from Tour organisers.
He said: "Cofidis joined Sunday and we are waiting for a reaction, we will probably hold a meeting on Monday."
And the Belgian hinted at further action from the teams when asked what happens if the organisers fail to yield.
"What happens if we don't agree with the obligation? You can put that angle on it," he said. "I don't think any argument justifies the decision to ban radios."
But the petition is likely to fall on deaf ears after the Tour de France organisers issued a statement on Saturday insisting radios will be banned for next week's two stages.
Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme said he would be very surprised if organisers decided to yield to the team's demands.
"I can't imagine that the UCI wouldn't go through with one of it's directives," he said. "Nothing has changed since the decision was taken on June 19."
Rogers' hopes on the up after ninth stage
Michael Rogers (R) next to Levi Leipheimer
Australian Michael Rogers appeared more optimistic of continuing the Tour de France after managing to stay with the main peloton throughout the third and final day in the Pyrenees on Sunday.
Rogers said before the ninth stage that his chances of continuing the race looked "grim" following a crash on Thursday which has left him with a swollen disc in his back.
But after finishing with the main bunch 34secs adrift of stage winner Pierrick Fedrigo on Sunday, he said: "That was much better than I thought it was going to be. I'm feeling a little bit more optimistic now."
Rogers' hopes for a top ten overall finish in this year's race, his first since crashing out of the 2007 edition while in the virtual yellow jersey, dimmed when he crashed on the rain-hit sixth stage.
Since then his swollen disc injury has left him struggling to produce any power, let alone produce the high intensity needed to keep pace with the yellow jersey favourites.
On Saturday's stage in the Pyrenees he immediately struggled on the climb out of Andorra, eventually finishing 23 minutes behind stage winner Luis Leon Sanchez and 22 minutes adrift of the main bunch.
When asked before the start of Sunday's stage if he was optimistic of resuming the race on Tuesday (after the rest day), he replied: "It's looking a bit grim at the moment.
"The legs are fine but it's pretty hard just trying to push on the pedals.
"I had two hours with the physio last night to try and relieve the stiffness and a bit more this morning but it's still pretty stiff."
Rogers is set to continue intense sessions of physiotherapy on Monday's rest day.
The race resumes with an undulating 194.5km 10th stage from Limoges to Issoudun on Tuesday.
Kohl implicates cyclists Boogerd, Dekker, Caucchioli: report
Bernhard Kohl has implicated other cyclists, according to a report in the Austrian daily Kurier
Austria's disgraced cyclist Bernhard Kohl has implicated other top cyclists, including Michael Boogerd, Thomas Dekker and Pietro Caucchioli, in an ever-widening Austrian doping scandal, the daily Kurier reported on Sunday.
Kohl, who was banned last year after testing positive for EPO CERA, told Austrian investigators that Dekker and Caucchioli had used blood-doping centrifuges acquired by his former manager Stefan Matschiner between 2006 and 2008, Kurier wrote, based on Kohl's interrogation transcripts.
"He (Matschiner) told me later that cyclists Michael Boogerd, Thomas Dekker and Pietro Caucchioli had used the machines in exchange for a one-time payment," Kohl apparently said.
Dekker, a two-time Dutch champion, and Caucchioli of Italy were both kept out of this year's Tour de France after testing positive for doping. Boogerd retired in October 2007.
Kohl, best climber and third overall at last year's Tour de France before he tested positive for EPO, came clean earlier this year following allegations against his former manager Matschiner.
Matschiner, who was arrested in March but later released, is seen as a key figure in the Austrian doping network and had close ties with former nordic skiing coach Walter Mayer - already involved in the 2006 Turin Olympics doping scandal - and the Viennese laboratory Humanplasma, which has repeatedly come under scrutiny for irregular practices.
Following the Olympic affair, blood supplies and equipment used for doping at Humanplasma were destroyed and Matschiner decided to buy centrifuges himself, Kurier reported.
"Stefan suggested that we buy machines for blood doping ourselves. Stefan got all the equipment directly from Humanplasma, or via this company," it quoted Kohl as saying.
"He explained to me that Humanplasma would handle all the costs."
Matschiner, who has admitted to performing irregular blood transfusions for Kohl, was also the manager of Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen, who was thrown off the race at the 2007 Tour de France following doping allegations.
Austria embarked on a major anti-doping clean-up in March with a series of arrests, including that of Mayer, cyclist Christof Kerschbaum and a Vienna pharmacist and doctor believed to have supplied banned substances to athletes.
© AFP 2009
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