Could new Tour king Contador surpass Armstrong's record?

At 26, Alberto Contador has two more Tour de France wins than Armstrong did at that age, as well as victories in cycling's other “grand tours” – something the Texan never accomplished.

Bernard Papon/Reuters

Yes, Lance Armstrong made an impressive, if not superhuman, comeback to place third in cycling’s most prestigious competition, the Tour de France.

But this year’s Tour winner is on a far more impressive trajectory than Armstrong was at his age.

Not only has Alberto Contador just bagged his second Tour win at 26 years old – that’s two more than Armstrong had at the same age – but the Spaniard is already just the fifth man in history to have placed first in all three “grand tours”: The Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta e Espana.

While Armstrong focused exclusively on the Tour in his years of dominance, Contador has now bagged four Grand Tour victories in a row – an astonishing accomplishment given the grueling effort each one requires. Cycling News lists this among the reasons why this year’s Tour de France win "his most important victory to date.”

Contador dominated the time trials and held off his main rivals in the mountains – as Armstrong once did. When he rolled into Paris on Sunday for the mostly ceremonial ride along the Champs-Élysées, he had a combined lead of more than four minutes over second-place Andy Schleck, and nearly five-and-a-half minutes over Armstrong. His Astana team placed Armstrong on the podium with him, in third place, in one of the most dominating team performances for years.

Hardest part of the race? In Astana's hotel.
But it was not the punishing climb to Verbier or the ascent up Mont Ventoux that pushed Contador the most. Shortly after his victory, the Spanish cyclist made it clear that the divisions within Astana were the toughest part of the Tour. Asked where the biggest challenge of the race was, he told a news crew, “It was in the [team] hotel.”

His was a house divided – with Armstrong pushing at the beginning of the race to be the team leader, the man for whom the rest of Astana would act as domestiques, shielding him from the wind and protecting him from the attacks of rivals on the grueling alpine stages.

But after Contador seized control of the race, in part with attacks that weren’t authorized by Astana’s sporting director (and Armstrong pal) Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong gave up his quest for an unprecedented eighth tour crown.

The two men have much in common, particularly a self-regard and singular focus that verges on arrogance. Armstrong said he was proud of placing on the podium, and that his children probably learned a lesson from their previously invincible dad falling a little bit short. He also said that he’ll probably never get back to his very best, telling the Associated Press in an interview: “Those quick accelerations, and the climbs with the high, high tempo, I probably won’t ever get that back.”

But his actions after the race also spoke volumes. He eschewed the team victory dinner in Contador’s honor to dine with RadioShack, his new sponsor with whom he appears to be planning a return to the top of the podium.

Contador's prospects
Now Astana’s team of stars is breaking up.

Armstrong will be riding elsewhere next year, and Astana is expected to welcome back Alexander Vinokourov – who just finished serving a two-year ban for doping in the 2007 Tour – as a possible leader next year. He’s Kazakh, and Astana gets most of its cash from a company controlled by the Kazakhstan government.

And while Contador will have lucrative offers to switch teams, sports columnist Martin Rogers writes that most of his options won’t provide a supporting cast that’s nearly as strong.

“Contador could look to join another team – the Caisse d’Epargne squad has been mentioned as one likely destination – yet while such a switch would boost his salary, it would leave him with a far weaker support crew.”

Writing for Sports Illustrated, Austin Murphy says Contador “must now be considered a threat” to Armstrong’s record.

“Even Armstrong admitted that at his sharpest, he has never climbed as swiftly as Contador got up the Verbier in Stage 15.”

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