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Tension brewing with Contador and Armstrong, at the TDF

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LIMOGES, France -- Alberto Contador is playing down tensions between him and Lance Armstrong, a rivalry that has left a glaring unresolved issue at the Tour de France: Astana's leadership remains in question while these former champions vie for the yellow jersey.

Armstrong told French television on Sunday that relations with his Spanish teammate are strained after nine stages of cycling's showcase race. Contador said during Monday's rest day in Limoges that he has grown weary of the debate.

"It's a subject which is starting to tire me a bit," he said. "It's too repetitive. For me there are no tensions. I am totally relaxed and focused on the competition."

Armstrong won seven straight Tours from 1999 to 2005 and is aiming for another title as he comes out of 3½ years of retirement. Contador, unable to defend his 2007 title last year because of Astana's team ban, is intent on adding to his growing list of achievements. He has already won the tours of France, Italy and Spain -- something Armstrong has not done.

Outwardly, neither rider admits he wants to take on the other. Both say they are prepared to sacrifice individual ambition for the greater good of the team.

"We eat together at the table and are together on the bus. Often the tension seems higher from the outside than it really is," Contador said. "The Tour is a tiring race and you can't waste energy on things that don't concern the race."

Going into Tuesday's 10th stage, Contador was in second place. He was two seconds ahead of Armstrong, who was third. Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy held the yellow jersey, six seconds ahead of Contador.

Those positions seem unlikely to change on three largely flat stages from Tuesday to Thursday or on Friday's moderately hard mountain stage. All of which means the Tour's most intriguing duel figures to be put on hold for at least a few days.

Armstrong suggested on French TV that he will not settle for third place, and "the honest truth is that there is a little tension" between him and Contador. Contador's reaction the next day was to cite several riders as contenders, but not Armstrong.

"I think the most dangerous rivals are the Schleck brothers [Frank and Andy]," he said. "They are well focused on the race. Cadel Evans is the only one to have attacked, and Carlos Sastre, he has a lot of experience."

The friction that was evident between Armstrong and Contador before the Tour intensified on Friday.

With Astana controlling the peloton and rivals unwilling to attack, it seemed as if the seventh stage would grind to an uneventful halt. But Contador could not hold back and attacked late into the final climb to the Pyrenean ski resort of Arcalis. He zoomed past Armstrong, as the 37-year-old Texan used to do to rivals in his heyday.

Armstrong respected cycling etiquette not to chase a teammate, losing ground to Contador in the overall standings. After the stage, Armstrong said the Spaniard's attack was not part of team orders.

"There's a difference between what's said in the team bus and what happens in the race," Contador said Monday, maintaining he had done nothing wrong. "They are different circumstances. I saw I could attack and I did, thinking about what benefit it would have for the team and to take advantage of the situation."

Fielding endless questions about a rift with Armstrong, Contador eventually acknowledged he wished things were different.

"If I was the clear leader of the team, there would be none of the controversy surrounding my attack in Arcalis," he said. "It's true that the situation could be simpler, and I could focus exclusively on my [riding]."

Intriguingly, he offered this assessment for the Tour's final, grueling week.

"The race will be very hectic in the Alps," he said, "and things will become clearer."

OVERALL STANDINGS TOUR DE FRANCE 2009

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