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Contador attacked. His surge succeeded brilliantly ... in dropping Klöden, who fell back like a spent rocket booster. He never caught back on, even though Contador realized his mistake and slowed down. That decision was made easier by the voice in his earpiece. Bruyneel "went ballistic" in the team car, according to a source close to Astana. Klöden ended up losing 2:27 on the day, and Contador's ill-timed attack might have cost Astana a clean sweep of the podium.
There was another possible interpretation of Contador's controversial move. Teammate though Klöden was, he also threatened Contador's ambitions. Disposing of him on the Colombière may have been Contador's way of saying, I don't trust any of you: Bruyneel, Armstrong, Klöden—none of you. So I'm going to ride my own race. Asked after Saturday's penultimate stage if he ever got the impression that Bruyneel wanted Armstrong to win, Contador replied, "It is indeed a very good question. In the end, things worked out for me."
Astana ended up taking first, third and, with Klöden, sixth—a tremendous result for a team that will now begin disintegrating. Shortly after Thursday's time trial around Lake Annecy, Armstrong made it official: He will ride for a new team next season. Get ready for ... Team RadioShack! If that sounds clunky, don't worry. You'll get used to it, just as you got used to Team U.S. Postal Service and Team Astana, which is sponsored by a consortium of Kazakh industries and whose light-blue jerseys symbolize "Kazakhstan's broad blue skies for freedom and success," to cite a passage from the Astana website that may or may not have been written by Borat.
Armstrong dropped from second to fourth on the day of the Colombière. But the more he struggled on this Tour, the more the French warmed to him. This, after all, is a nation that lionized Raymond Poulidor, a brilliant but star-crossed cyclist whose fame derives from the fact that he could never quite win this race. (He finished second three times and third five times.) When out on one of the long, doomed breakaways that are their specialty, French riders know to contort their faces into masks of unsurpassed anguish: Their public demands proof that they are suffering for the sport. One of the problems the French fans always had with Armstrong was his cyborg's mien on the way to victory.
This time Armstrong presented a more human face, and not just when gasping for breath on steep climbs or suffering through mediocre individual time trials. He apologized to riders Carlos Sastre of Spain and Christian Vande Velde of the U.S., who finished first and fifth, respectively, in last year's Tour. After that race ended, Armstrong had belittled them, citing their success as one reason he came back. "I didn't give enough respect," he admitted. "Not a cool thing to do."
And, following Contador's emphatic stage 15 victory atop the Verbier ski station, the sweat had not dried on Armstrong's forehead before he displayed a graciousness the cycling world had never seen from him. The battle for Astana team leadership was over, he admitted. He would henceforth work for the younger rider, for the good of the team.
"I think people expected me to be devastated," Armstrong said, "but that's not the way I felt. It wasn't, Oh, God, my life is over. [Contador] was better. It wasn't a big downer for me. I did my best."
I did my best? Who are you, and what have you done with Lance Armstrong? The Texan's longtime agent, Bill Stapleton, is a former Olympic swimmer, hence his propensity to quote swimmers. "[Olympic breaststroke champion] Steve Lundquist used to say, 'First is first. Second is last,'" Stapleton says. "And that's how Lance lived those seven Tours. Here, now, that's not how he sees it."
His client concurred, describing himself as "damned pleased" with third place, considering his status as "an old fart."
Picking up on his attitude adjustment, the French came around to Armstrong, from editors of his longtime nemesis L'Equipe, whose Sunday headline offered both an olive branch and tip of the cap (CHAPEAU, LE TEXAN), to fans lining the course. Not all were emphatic. ARMSTRONG—POURQUOI PAS? asked a sign held by a man who'd escaped, perhaps, from a Camus novel. But Le Texan took what he could get.