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Armstrong eyes Tour 2010

LANCE Armstrong has already won his hand at the Tour de France. Five days before the race ends on the Champs-Elysées, the Texan has proved he can still be regarded as a potential race winner and has found a new sponsor for his team next year.

Following a difficult first Alpine stage last week, where he lost 1 minute, 35 seconds to his Astana teammate and race leader Alberto Contador, Armstrong came back yesterday with an acceleration reminiscent of his heyday in the race he dominated for seven consecutive years between 1999 and 2005 before deciding it was time to retire.

Armstrong's impressive run during the 16th stage allowed him to retain his second-place overall, 1:37 behind Contador, and to dream of even better days.

The seven-time champion, back in the saddle this year with the Kazakh-funded Astana team, was so happy with his aging legs' performance that he suggested to The Associated Press he could still contend for the yellow jersey if teammate and race leader Alberto Contador has a "bad day."

"If there was a massive shake-up and something happened, then I'd have to be strong - to represent the interests of the team," Armstrong, said in a phone interview with the AP. "But I don't think that's going to happen.

"If he were to have a bad day, I think I could cover the moves for the team. But I don't think he's going to have a bad day."

Even if the three-week race is far from over - with a third and last Alpine stage featuring five climbs on Wednesday, a time-trial the day after and the dreadful ascent to the Mont Ventoux scheduled on the penultimate stage - Contador seems so strong this year that an eighth Armstrong's win in the cycling's showcase event is unlikely.

But next year?

Armstrong confirmed Tuesday that he will ride the Tour in 2010 and announced that he found a new American sponsor to back his team next season. He said he will provide details Thursday and there is a strong possibility that Armstrong and his old friend Johan Bruyneel - currently Astana manager - will stay together to launch a new team. Contador is expected to join another squad.

Armstrong also believes that after a long period away from competition, another year under his belt could help him to get his optimum race condition back.

"I can certainly look to the season and assess the preparation, the races I chose - obviously avoiding the crash would have helped," Armstrong said when asked whether he could have been in a better position overall. "All of those things you could look at now. But that's pointless. I look at them this winter, and for next year I'll try to make some adjustments."

One of the oldest riders in the peloton, Armstrong may delude himself into believing he can be a factor on next year's race. However the Texan showed during Tuesday's second Alpine stage he still has the capacity to accelerate that helped him to destroy his rivals when he was on top.

As Contador tried to keep pace with two attackers on the final climb, the 37-year-old American lagged. Yet after dropping back at least 35 seconds, he surged back to recover the lost ground.

"I realized the race was basically going away from us," he said. "So, I had no choice other than trying to make the cross. So I waited until we had a steeper section, and then I got away with an acceleration."

Armstrong added he was feeling better on his bike than he did during Sunday's entree into the Alps, when Contador crushed him and the entire pack on the ride up to the Swiss ski station of Verbier.

"I felt a lot better than Verbier. But I've made some changes to my position yesterday, I raised the seat height. So in general I was pedaling better today than Sunday."

Contador was impressed, but not surprised.

"It's easy to explain - he's a very great rider," said Contador, who leads his Astana teammate by 1:37. "He was in the past, and he showed it once again."

Contador and Armstrong finished in a small group of race leaders behind stage winner Mikel Astarloza. The route from Martigny, Switzerland, to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, featured the highest peak this year, the snowcapped Grand-Saint-Bernard pass on the Swiss-Italian border, at 2,473 meters (8,113 feet), and its sister the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass, on the Italian-French border.

During his final Tour in 2005, many fans booed Armstrong as he raced by. But this year, his outsider status allowed him to conquer French hearts.

"It's been the best (Tour) that I ever seen, and better than the previous years," Armstrong said. "Although it was not so bad before ... before you had some really aggressive ones, now we see less of the aggressive people and we see more supporters. It's been a real pleasure to see."

Astarloza, who rides for the Euskadi Euskaltel team, crossed the line six seconds ahead of French riders Sandy Casar and Pierrick Fedrigo.

With a little more than a kilometer (mile) to go, the Spaniard escaped three other breakaway riders with him and held on for his first stage win on the Tour.

"This is the biggest day of my career," Astarloza said.

Contador, Armstrong, fourth-placed teammate Andreas Kloeden and third-placed Bradley Wiggins of Britain all finished 59 seconds after Astarloza.

Overall, Contador leads Wiggins, of Garmin, by 1:46. Kloeden is 2:17 back, and Andy Schleck of Saxo Bank is fifth, trailing by 2:26.

Two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia, who finished 3:55 back, was one of the big losers. He fell to 17th from 14th and trails Contador by 7:23.

Wednesday's stage features what some riders fear is the toughest Alpine route this year - a 169-kilometer (105-mile) ride from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand marked by five tough climbs and another downhill finish.


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