By Andrew Hood

Naysayers will be quick to point out that Lance Armstrong’s presence in and Alberto Contador’s absence from Monday’s decisive 28-man breakaway is all the proof they need that the Texan is riding against the Spaniard in the 2009 Tour de France.

Calmer heads might suggest that experience ruled the day when Armstrong followed Columbia-HTC into the biting crosswinds across France’s Camargue and bounced from 10th to third overall, now 40 seconds behind overnight leader Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank).

Armstrong insists he was just riding smart.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you have to go to the front,” Armstrong said. “I have won the Tour de France seven times, why wouldn’t we ride at the front.”

Monday’s stage bordered on the routine until Columbia-HTC massed its entire team at the front of the pack coming into a right turn that mashed right into the teeth of the wind.

Armstrong sensed something was cooking and nosed toward the front. Astana teammates Haimar Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovych also bridged out when Columbia dropped the hammer with about 30km to go.

“He knows what he’s doing,” said Columbia’s Mick Rogers. “I wasn’t surprised that Armstrong was there.”

Contador, however, wasn’t there when the split opened.

Neither was Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre, the Schleck brothers, Christian Vande Velde or Astana co-leaders Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden. But with alleged growing tensions between Contador and Armstrong, that was the only thing everyone wanted to talk about.

“I don’t want to judge the tactic of the team,” Contador said. “I will let everyone make up their own minds.”

Unable to bridge across at the key moment and with three teammates up the road, Contador was forced to sit back and wait for the other GC favorites to close down the gap.

With Columbia pouring it on, they couldn’t. The gap widened to 41 seconds, leaving Contador to try to put a positive spin on the day’s events after he fell from second to fourth, now 59 seconds back.

“We had three up front, it was up to the other teams to pull,” Contador said. “The Tour isn’t going to be won or lost by these differences. There is still a lot of room to play.”

Armstrong didn’t pull through until it became obvious the gap was going to stick. With about 10km to go, Zubeldia and Popovych started taking pulls at the front to drive the group home.

Armstrong laughed at suggestions that he was somehow attacking Contador.

“That was not my objective. But you turned around, I was surprised that there was a gap,” he said. “I was just trying to stay out of trouble and stay up front and then it happened. It wasn’t an attack.”

Astana manager Johan Bruyneel insisted that no one is playing favorites within team tactics.

“If it had been Levi or Kloden in the same position, we would have ridden the same. It doesn’t matter who is in that situation,” Bruyneel said. “We let the others work in the break, because I thought it would come back together. But when the gap was still big with 10km to go, that’s when we put Zubeldia and Popovych to work. Then it was good for us and the other teams had to work harder to chase.”

Among the legitimate GC contenders, only Armstrong, Linus Gerdemann (Milram – 7th at 1:03), Columbia’s Rogers (11th at 1:13) and Kim Kirchen (who climbed from 109th to 37th at 1:57 back) were in the front group.

Just as Sastre later said, the impact on GC is relatively minor once the dust settled at the end of the day.

But the stakes are huge for the internal struggle within Astana over team leadership.

Before the Camargue breakout, Contador was poised to lead Astana in Tuesday’s decisive team time trial and, just 19 seconds behind Cancellara, potentially ride into Spain on Thursday wearing the yellow jersey.

Now it’s Armstrong who’s on top, 19 seconds ahead of Contador. And it’s Armstrong who could inherit the yellow jersey if Astana puts down a great ride Tuesday in Montpellier.

Contador was in the driver’s seat after the Monaco time trial Saturday, clearly above Armstrong and could make the legitimate claim to the team’s leadership.

Armstrong’s savvy and experience changed everything.

All eyes were on Armstrong to see if he would honor his word to not attack Contador if the Spanish climber was looking stronger.

Now the tables are turned. It will be Contador who be obliged to not attack Armstrong on the decisive climbing stage to Arcalis in Andorra, especially if Armstrong is wearing yellow.

With tens of thousands of Spanish fans pouring into the Pyrénées to cheer on their new national hero, will Contador hold back?

Astana will surely cook up some interesting tactic to confound everyone, perhaps sending Zubeldia or Leipheimer on the attack early to put the pressure on their rivals.

It’s going to be fun to watch how it all unfolds.

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