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Schlecks' attack stirs ranks at Tour

LE GRAND BORNAND, France -- Worst kept secret at this Tour de France: Astana general manager Johan Bruyneel will announce tomorrow that he intends to start a new team next year, backed by American sponsorship and led by Lance Armstrong.

Second-worst kept secret: that Andy and Frank Schleck, the lanky Luxembourgers who came into today's monster alpine stage sitting sixth and eighth in the overall classification, would attack on the fourth of five climbs. Those would be on the obscenely and relentlessly steep Col de Romme, a sinuous ribbon of a road hewn from a Savoy cliffside and on loan, it sometimes appeared, from Mordor.

And drill it they did, enroute to Frank's second Tour de France stage win, raining carnage on the main group, whittling it to a dozen, then eight, then -- by the time they summited the Romme -- four riders: themselves and a pair of Astanas.

One was Alberto Contador, who appears to be four days from his second Tour victory. The other was ... not Lance. On the Schlecks' final push, Andreas Kloden and Contador followed. Armstrong was blown.

Yes, he would debate that choice of words. Lance isn't getting dropped at this Tour. He's simply choosing not to respond to these impetuous attacks by youthful hotheads. Sometimes it works -- he bridged up to the Schleck group yesterday, in one of the more dramatic moments of this year's Tour. And sometimes you end losing a bunch of time. Despite having led Andy Schleck by 2 ½ minutes this morning, Armstrong now trails him by 1:19. (Armstrong also trails Frank by a half-minute). Where Contador and Armstrong had been Nos. 1 and 2 this morning, the Schlecks -- by finishing 2:18 ahead of the Texan -- interposed themselves between these uneasy teammates.

That brings us to the third-worst kept secret. Even on the cusp of triumph, Contador continues to sow discord in the ranks of this immensely talented, undeniably divided squad.

On the final climb, the Col de la Colombiere, with Bruyneel in his earpiece telling the Spaniard that all he needed to do was sit on the Schlecks' wheels -- "I told him, you don't have to attack [today] to win the Tour de France" -- the Matador decided to ignore that advice. His ensuing burst was a marvel to behold, a stunning success ... at dropping his own teammate. While Kloden was shelled, and never did catch back on, it took the Schlecks about 20 seconds to reel in the Spaniard.

Kloden was eventually caught by Armstrong, which, on the road into Le Grand Bornand, must have given him a strange feeling of déjà vu.

"It's a bit of a pity that Andreas couldn't hang on," said Bruyneel outside the team bus afterward. "I think we could've been first, second and third today" in the general classification. "Instead we are first, fourth and fifth." Asked if the team dynamic had been improving since Contador's controversial attack in Stage 7 -- the one that succeeded in keeping Armstrong out of the yellow jersey -- Bruyneel replied, "Yes, it is." Pause. "At least, it was."

How about you, Lance. What did you think of Alberto's backfired attack? "I'm gonna bite my tongue on that one," he said.

Less circumspect was the member of his retinue who was overheard wisecracking that Contador might be dining "at a table for one tonight."

Dinner at the Saxo Bank hotel, meanwhile, should be a festive affair. The Schlecks need to enjoy today's stage victory, and their rise to second and third in the overall standings, because it's not going to last very long. They're not especially good time trialers; tomorrow's stage is a 40-kilometer contre le montre around Lake Annecy.

Let's say Lance takes two minutes out of Andy in the time trail. That would give him a half-minute cushion going into Saturday's decisive stage ending on the hors categorie Mont Ventoux. Armstrong's problem is, based on what we saw Wednesday, Schleck could take that time back -- and plenty more -- on the so-called "Giant of Provence."

Lance also needs to keep an eye on Kloden, who was lucky to be selected for this Tour, considering recent allegations against him. The German rider has twice finished second in the Tour, and may well better Armstrong in the time trial.

Armstrong may lack the acceleration that launched him to seven Tour victories, but he's making up for it, a little, in savvy. Contador's biggest threat going into this stage was Garmin's surprising Bradley Wiggins, who has suddenly learned, in his ninth year as a pro, how to climb with the best ascenders in the world.

Because Wiggins is also superb in the time trial, he has lately held Bruyneel's full attention. After letting the Schlecks ride away on the Romme, Armstrong made himself useful to Contador by sitting on Wiggins' wheel for the better part of 15 kilometers. Wiggo had to be pleased with that arrangement, secure in the knowledge that he would take time out of Armstrong in the time trial -- and possibly bump him off the podium in Paris.

But the Brit's podium hopes became much more remote when Armstrong, after giving the appearance that he was at his limit, lit the fuse, unleashing a sharp, nasty, vintage-Lance attack to which Wiggo had no answer. He ended up dropping 49 seconds to the Texan.

What we may be looking at, folks, is an all-Astana podium in Paris, with Contador on the top step, and Armstrong battling Kloden for the second step. The second and third place riders will smile and tell the world how pleased they are for the winner, and no one will believe them.

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