Make your own mind about the relationship between arguably the two best riders in the race, but with a less-than-selective opening week-and-a-half – albeit with a few selective moments – the Lance Armstrong-Alberto Contador dynamic has occupied the majority of the Tour de France talk so far.
Despite all that’s been said the past nine days, the former says he’s "only going to follow the team orders"; the latter says "he’ll let the road decide". Together, one could view the statements as either complimentary or contradictory.
Looking at the facts, these have been the key moments between the two so far:
In the 15.5-kilometre opening time trial in Monaco, Contador beat Armstrong by 22 seconds, and finished 18 seconds behind stage winner Fabian Cancellara of Saxo Bank in second place.
Two days later, on a windswept third stage to La Grande Motte, the Texan made a crucial break of 28 riders some 30 kilometres from the finish, along with two of his Astana team-mates – neither or which was Contador – with 25 of those men finishing 41 seconds ahead of a group containing the 2007 Tour champion. On the classement general, it left Armstrong ahead of Contador by 19 seconds.
The following day in Montepellier, Armstrong and Contador are among six Astana riders who blitz the 39-km team time trial, the best team by 18 seconds from Garmin-Slipstream and 40 ticks of the clock quicker than Saxo Bank. Cancellara and Armstrong find themselves on equal time, the American missing out on wearing the Golden Fleece by 22 hundredths of a second. Contador remained 19 seconds back. Four of out the six best riders on GC are from Astana.
Agritubel’s Brice Feillu triumphs on Stage 7 to Arcalis, but 3:26 behind the Frenchman is Contador, whose solo attack in the closing kilometres saw him finish 21 seconds ahead of the next group behind containing Armstrong and the rest of the GC favourites. Contador now leads Armstrong by two seconds, and is six seconds off the maillot jaune, now worn by AG2R’s Rinaldo Nocentini.
Since then, and going into a quartet of transitional stages in the coming week, the leaderboard has remained status quo.
"There’s not really been any big selection," Armstrong conceded. "We had the selection of the opening time trial; we had the selection of the team time trial. The day in the wind [Stage 3] we had a little selection, and then Arcalis – the time differences weren’t that big."
"I think it’s [the overall standings] closer than we expected," he said.
Asked how he felt after nine consecutive days of racing, Armstrong said his legs are a lot better than at the Giro d’Italia, where he finished 12th overall, 16 minutes behind Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, the Russian conversely is struggling at La Grande Boucle, currently 27th overall and five minutes off the race lead.
"Not bad," said Armstrong. "I think we got through how we wanted to. I think the team time trial set the order of the favourites, and now we’re going to have three or four days that probably won’t change the classification. I think all the favourites and considering Verbier [Stage 15] the next big test."
Given what’s happened so far, though, with both riders attempting to steal a few seconds here and there, it would be presumptuous to say nothing’s going to happen to the best-placed riders over the coming days.
Or that Contador and Armstrong will indeed follow orders. Armstrong’s move on Stage 3 definitely wasn’t a team directive – according to the 37-year-old American, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time – and after Contador’s attack on Arcalis, Astana sport director Johan Bruyneel admitted no such order came from the team car, nor was it premeditated.
Nonetheless, after the final Pyrenean stage Sunday, Armstrong told reporters: "If there’s a situation where the team tells us to be in front and it’s windy or it’s hilly and I make a selection, I’ll do it. But I’m only going to follow the team orders."
"The leadership is secondary for now," Contador said. "The most important is to have the yellow jersey the last day in Paris. At the moment, we are interested in going quietly and AG2R can be a bit calmer, though as the differences are so small, we have to work because our team is more powerful."
Don’t expect Armstrong to say how he’d ride if he were Contador – though in an interview with French television Sunday, he said "Alberto is strong, and he's very ambitious" – but he did say that if he were a GC leader from a rival team, he would play the waiting game.
"If I were those guys I would wait. I think this race is going to get a lot harder, and our team won’t look the same or feel the same in the third week as it does now. It’s still too close [on the overall classification], and honestly, if I was Cadel Evans or Andy Schleck or Carlos Sastre, I would be waiting."
But wait for how long, Lance?
"I’d wait for my moment in the Alps, or on Ventoux," he said.