PARIS, July 27 – Newly-crowned Tour de France champion Alberto Contador showed more than impressive climbing and time trialling skills on his way to victory in this year's race.
The 26-year-old Spaniard belied his unassuming nature to show nerves of steel in the face of a formidable teammate, Lance Armstrong, whose reputation struck fear into rivals during his seven-year reign on the race.
Racing for the same team, Astana, the collaboration of the Texan and the Spanish young gun who has won all three major Tours was always going to create sparks.
"It wasn’t really a compatible situation," Contador admitted on Saturday. "I knew he was coming here to win, but so was I."
After months of speculation that Astana was composed of two rival camps, it took only until the race’s third stage for the first shots to be fired.
When Armstrong used his head and his legs in testing wind conditions to join an echelon created by the Columbia team – which ultimately left many of his rivals, including Contador, 41secs behind – the Spaniard knew what he was up against.
Armstrong was unrepentant, claiming that Contador should have known to be at the front of the peloton before the split.
"I won the Tour de France seven times, so it makes no sense not to be at the front," said Armstrong, who at La Grande Motte moved up to third overall at 40sec behind Swiss Fabian Cancellara.
Although hard to prove, for some Armstrong’s move was pre-meditated. On the next day’s team time trial over 39km Astana blew away their rivals and Armstrong missed replacing Cancellara as the yellow jersey wearer by just 0.22secs.
Astana team boss Johan Bruyneel would only say after the stage: "After three years of retirement to be back in the yellow jersey would have been quite a statement."
Once in the Pyrenees, Contador struck the first of three blows which put Armstrong firmly in his place.
On the first summit finish to Arcalis on stage seven where French race debutant Brice Feillu scored a memorable victory Contador attacked a small group containing all the main favourites inside the final two kilometres.
Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre dropped further behind Contador, who leapfrogged Armstrong into second place, six seconds behind new yellow jersey holder, Italian Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R.
Despite Astana having four riders in the top six, Contador’s performance appeared to vex Bruyneel, a close friend and mentor of Armstrong.
"No one had specific instructions to attack," admitted Bruyneel.
With opportunities rare, there followed a long truce in the battle for the yellow jersey.
But when Nocentini’s lead did come under threat, it was Armstrong who helped – and it wasn’t Contador, but the American’s former teammate George Hincapie, now of the Columbia team, who almost benefited.
In the end AG2R were helped by Columbia’s rivals Garmin to keep Hincapie down in second place by just five seconds.
"No one, and I mean no one, wanted George in yellow more than me," said Armstrong. Hincapie must have felt honoured, because Armstrong never said as much about Contador.
But on the race’s second summit finish the next day, Contador put the record straight when he capped a superb solo attack with victory in Verbier, Switzerland to take command of the race.
Armstrong finished 1:35 behind and, for the first time, showed signs of giving up.
"There is no point messing around. I gave everything I had and I wasn’t the best. Alberto showed he is the best rider in the race," said the American.
The next day Bruyneel announed his imminent departure from Astana.
After the race the Belgian conceded that "tensions existed" within the team, adding it was not until "Verbier that we realised Alberto was the strongest."
Contador remained focused, and again defied team orders on stage 17 to Le Grand Bornand when he raced away from teammate Andreas Kloden with the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank.
While dropping Kloden off the podium Contador’s attack helped put Andy Schleck second at 2:26, while Armstong dropped from being second at 1:37 to fourth at 3:55
Again, Bruyneel railed that Contador’s move was against his advice.
"We could have been first, second and third today in general classification, but now we are first, fourth and fifth," said the Belgian.
On stage 18’s individual time trial there were no tactics to follow.
Contador simply made a sign of the cross several times before setting off on a 39km trip around Lake Annecy which proved, beyond all doubt, that he was a worthy winner.
Beating Cancellara by 3sec, Contador left Armstrong trailing in 16th place while Schleck, at 1:45, did enough to virtually secure second.