No holding Armstrong or Contador back

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

SAINT-GIRONS, France – As usual, the Tour de France has been a fascinating feast of sporting drama, spiced with side dishes of cycling politics, secrecy, speculation and innuendo.

Now, as the midway point of the world's most arduous two-wheeled test approaches, it may become a race.

Cycling's inner machinations provide intrigue of their own, and for those who like to delve beneath the skin of athletic endeavor it is the gift that keeps on giving.

Finally getting to understand the intricate workings of this complex profession, with its multitude of jerseys, classifications, traditions and team orders is something of an achievement in itself.

Yet what everyone with an affinity for this event wants to see – from the casual television viewer to the bike racing fanatic – is two combatants freed from situational shackles and allowed to go head-to-head in pedaling warfare.

Such shackles looked likely to deny Lance Armstrong his shot at an eighth Tour title this year, with Spanish teammate Alberto Contador having earned the protected position of leader within the Astana squad.

Arrangements such as these are commonplace within cycling teams, with a group of employed riders focusing their energies on assisting the star man.

However, as the Tour wound its way around the steep and stunning Pyrenean countryside on Saturday, the utter dominance of Astana continued to create an increasing sense of egalite.

After eight stages, four members of the team occupy the top six positions overall, while the riders fancied to put up the strongest challenge have been unable to create any stir so far.

Last year's top two, Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans, loiter around three minutes off the pace, with emerging star Andy Schleck down in the ninth spot and unlikely to put any pressure on Contador or Armstrong.

Astana team director Johan Bruyneel is a coy and cautious man, but he indicated strongly yesterday that he no longer feels there is a non-Astana rider who can claim victory in Paris later this month.

When quizzed by Yahoo! Sports on Saturday, Bruyneel acknowledged that neither of his leading men would be unfairly denied the chance to chase ultimate glory.

"We are a very unique team in that we have a rider who has won seven Tours de France [Armstrong] and another who has won three Grand Tours and is a great stage rider [Contador]," Bruyneel said. "If it ultimately turns out that they are the two strongest riders of the race and it is clear no one else can win, it is pretty clear they both want to win."

That, in Bruyneel-speak, means one thing: Let them race.

There is still an outside chance that another rider could put up an unexpected challenge. But given the way Astana has masterfully controlled race tactics until now, it seems highly unlikely.

Still, many sports fans new to cycling may struggle to understand why there has been such a level of conservatism from Bruyneel until now. For that, we need to delve into the thorny issue of the team's ownership by the Astana group, a conglomeration of state-owned companies in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

Armstrong is not getting paid by Astana, having offered his services for free on the understanding that he would be allowed to wear his LiveStrong helmet to promote his cancer charity.

When the arrangement was put in place, the Kazakh owners could not have imagined the American would be able to recreate his past form after three years away from the sport, and envisaged him as being the ideal man to assist Contador.

In future years, it is expected that the Kazakhs will look to fill the team with riders from their own country, plus a handful of Spaniards led by Contador. Therefore, it is the younger man who would be their preferred victor this year. The hierarchy of Astana, which includes Kazakhstan's prime minister Nursultan Nazarbayev, does not want to be seen as losing control of their team.

Likewise, Bruyneel has a long and close association with Armstrong and can't be seen as playing favorites. Yet with the team so far ahead of its rivals, his decision to allow Contador and Armstrong to scrap it out cannot be faulted.

Of course, there is a big difference between being allowed to claim victory and being able to. Given the length of Armstrong's time away, his ability to last the full three weeks is still unknown.

If Contador were to put in a series of blistering attacks, Armstrong would be forced to dig deeper than ever before to try to stick with him.

Armstrong once said he wants to die aged 100, going downhill at 75 mph, "with the American flag on my back and the star of Texas on my helmet." But it will figuratively be by attempting to ascend at a speed at which his 2009 Tour dreams could grow or perish.

Contador is a born climber, capable of stretching the lungs and legs of his competitors and sapping their spirit. Saturday's hilly route did not suit an attack by him, as the inclines came early – meaning he would have needed to stay in front without support if he had tried to open up time.

Instead, Olympic road-race champion Luis Leon Sanchez took the stage after a long breakaway. Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy, not an overall Tour threat, remains in the yellow jersey, six seconds clear of Contador and eight up on Armstrong.

There is desperation about Astana's rivals and Bruyneel knows it. The time when that turns into total loss of hope is near.

When that comes, the real race begins.

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