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Lance changes schedule to take on Contador

LANCE Armstrong will go head-to-head with Astana teammate and chief rival Alberto Contador for the first time in Spain's Castille and Leon Vuelta this month.

In a change of schedule, the seven-time Tour de France champion will also ride in the centennial Milan-San Remo classic to prepare for the Giro d'Italia.

Armstrong has dropped the Tour of Flanders one-day classic and France's Criterium International from his program.

Astana is planning to send a star-studded team to the March 23-27 tour in northern Spain, with Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer and, possibly, tour expert Andreas Kloeden joining co-leaders Armstrong and Contador.

"It will make it extremely interesting," said team spokesman Philippe Maertens.

The changes mean Armstrong will be back in Europe well ahead of the March 21 spring opener from Milan to San Remo. The centennial racing of the classic will feature all the top one-day cyclists. The 298-km race along the Mediterranean is the longest on the calendar but has few daunting hills.

From northern Italy, Armstrong will then switch straight to the hilly Castille and Leon from March 23-27.

"The Castille and Leon race will allow Armstrong to focus on the time trial and two mountaintop finishes," the team said, the kind of stages which will also be vital if Armstrong is to challenge for victory in the Giro and Tour.

And he will get his first competitive look at Contador, who is a favorite for a second Tour title this summer.

The Spaniard, who won in 2007, was unable to defend his Tour de France title last year after Astana was banned because of doping controversies.

Contador is considered a threat to Armstrong's leadership of the team. Armstrong and Contador were originally not supposed to race together before the Tour.

Maertens was cautious when asked whether Armstrong would go all out for victory in Castille and Leon.

"He only has to be at his best in the Giro," he said.

After the Spanish race, Armstrong will head straight back to Austin, Texas, for continued training in the United States.

Cutting the Tour of Flanders will also reduce the risk of injury. The tour is often run in brutal windy and rainy conditions and goes along the pounding cobblestones of northern Belgium over a dozen steep hills.

It is perhaps the toughest classic to win, but most riders see it as a goal in itself, not a preparation for a major tour like the Giro one month later.

It is still unclear what races Armstrong will compete in during April as final preparation for the May 9-31 Giro.


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