By Greg Johnson
Just hours after becoming the youngest rider to take the maillot jaune since Jan Ullrich's '97 win, Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador has received one of the biggest compliments of all - the praise of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. The Discovery Channel part-owner arrived in France to watch his 24 year-old rider defend the yellow jersey in Saturday's Time Trial, and having seen the Spaniard's work under immense pressure first hand, the American thinks Contador may even break his own record of Tour wins.
"Records are there to be broken and if Alberto can begin winning Tours at this age we will see how far he can go," Armstrong told Spanish daily Marca. "Contador is a very talented rider who is very explosive in the mountains and also does well in the time-trials but let's not forget he is only 24 and can only get better."
"He is the great hope for the future not just for Spanish cycling but for the sport as a whole," added the Texan. On Saturday, Armstrong told Cyclingnews after the time trial, "I think we'd have to say that it's the best overall Tour we've ever had as an organisation".
Discovery Channel's team manager Johan Bruyneel echoed Armstrong's comments. "Since Lance retired people are always asking, Who is the next Armstrong?'" Bruyneel said to TheHerald.co.uk. "I think he's up there on the podium, in the yellow jersey. They are obviously different types of riders but Alberto has many key characteristics that remind me of Lance. He is a rider capable of executing a strategy, a plan for a race. He has the world at his feet now."
The 2007 edition has seen Discovery Channel return to its former glory at the Tour, after struggling to find itself an identity in 2006 following Armstrong's retirement. The American ProTour squad will leave France this July with a swag of results: in addition to Contador's maillot jaune and young rider's jersey, Discovery has won the teams classification, victories on Stages 15 and 19, and a total of three riders in the top 10 on general classification, with Levi Leipheimer in third and Yaroslav Popovych in eight joining Contador.
"It's been a great Tour for us," said Armstrong. "We came to win the white jersey (for best young rider) and a stage and we are leaving with the yellow jersey, the white and stage wins. This is without doubt reason for happiness and optimism."
Armstrong rode in the Discovery Channel team car on Saturday's Time Trial, where Contador had to minimise his time loss to Predictor-Lotto's Cadel Evans, as morale support. While Contador said Armstrong didn't speak to him directly during the stage, he could hear the American in the background while team manager Bruyneel talked him through the stage.
"I tried to give him confidence and advice to keep his lead and calm his nerves but I don't know if he was listening to me because there was a lot of noise in the car," said Armstrong.
The squad's Tour success will undoubtedly add weight to its bid to find a replacement sponsor for Discovery Channel, which is withdrawing from the sport at the end of 2007. Bruyneel has recently been quoted as saying the team's management is close to signing off on the new sponsorship deal.
Contador's victory sees the maillot jaune return to Europe for the first time since Italian Marco Pantani won the event in 1998. Americans, primarily Armstrong, dominated during the eight year gap with Floyd Landis' 2006 victory tagging onto the end of Armstrong's seven consecutive wins.