The Tour de France drama inside the Astana team camp was supposed to have ended when Spaniard Alberto Contador assumed the team leadership and the maillot jaune in Verbier on Sunday, but he may have caused more friction with his attack near the top of the Colombière today.
While Contador looked to distance himself from Saxo Bank brothers Fränk and Andy Schleck, he not only succeeded in dropping teammate Andreas Klöden, who was third overall behind at the start of the day, the eventual split pushed the German further away from hopes of a podium finish in Paris.
"I spoke about attacking the Schleck brothers with [team director] Johan Bruyneel, the goal was to gain minutes. I also spoke with Klöden on the climb, and he told me to go for it," Contador said.
Contador's attack with 1.7 kilometres from the crest of the Colombière and 16.7km before the finish in Le Grand-Bornand did not dislodge the Saxo Bank rivals. However, it did manage to help distance Kloden from challenging for the podium.
"I thought I could go alone but the brothers managed to come back. When I saw Andreas could not follow, it was too late. He was really struggling at that moment."
Fränk Schleck won the stage over Contador and his brother Andy. Armstrong finished 2:18 back and slipped from second to fourth overall. Klöden finished 2:27 back and slid from fourth to fifth.
With Contador clearly the superior time trialist amongst the top three, and now having nearly four minutes on Armstrong and more on Klöden and Wiggins, he has given himself a large buffer coming into the final two decisive stages. But Bruyneel said following the stage that he did not see the necessity in the attack.
"I told [Contador], 'you don't have to attack today to win the Tour de France.' The difference was already there to Bradley Wiggins, who we were most worried about," said Bruyneel. "It is a bit of pity Andreas could not hang on because I think we could have been first, second and third in the classification."
There is still a chance for Astana to stack the top three, but it will take devastating time losses in the 40.5km time trial tomorrow by the brothers Schleck.
Armstrong did not play into the reporters' hands by second guessing his Spanish teammate. "I am going to bite my tongue on that one," said Armstrong of Contador's attack today, but he did question the move in his Twitter update.
Armstrong said last week that there were tensions in the team, but after losing time in Sunday's stage to Verbier he pledged his support to help Contador win his second Tour.
While Contador insists his motives for the attack were tactically sound, and that he was told he should attack by Klöden, there was speculation amongst the Tour press corps that the Spaniard does not need to make niceties with his Astana teammates because Armstrong and Bruyneel are planning a new team for 2010, with an announcement on a sponsor coming tomorrow.
Contador is contracted with team Astana through the end of 2010.
The Tour continues tomorrow with a 40.5-kilometre time trial in Annecy. Armstrong has a chance to move up in the overall classification, but the mountain stage to Mont Ventoux on the Tour's penultimate day could see the Schleck brothers bounce back. The race ends in four days with a flat stage to Paris.