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Earpiece ban upstages Armstrong-Contador

| Wednesday, July 15, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

ISSOUDUN, France — The tension is clear between teammates Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. That's nothing, however, compared to the anger many riders feel toward Tour de France organizers.

On a day when Contador and Armstrong held their second and third spots in the overall standings and Britain's Mark Cavendish won the 10th stage, the Tour took a giant technological leap backward Tuesday.

Riders were stripped of their customary earpieces, left to fend for themselves and denied contact with their teams during the 121-mile route. The decision to ban rider radios and TV sets in cars was made last month.

The Tour wanted to inject drama into the race by eliminating earpieces for the 10th and 13th stages. Many riders — Armstrong, Contador and overall leader Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy among them — were far from pleased with the experiment.

"The fact is for us it's dangerous not to have them," Nocentini said. "There are dangers on the road."

Instead of drama, the Tour got a day of agonizingly slow riding. The only excitement came with Cavendish's dash a few hundred yards from the finish for his third stage victory in this race.

"The reason to have no radios was to have more attractive racing, and that's obviously not what happened," Astana team director Johan Bruyneel said. "I think if that's what they wanted to accomplish, it's been a failure. I just think it's a bad idea to go back 20 years and do something like this, stupidly, in the biggest race of the year."

Earpieces allow riders to be linked to their directors in team cars. Riders can be informed of developments and told when they need to attack or chase rivals in a breakaway. The radio transmissions are private and fans cannot listen to them.

The strategy was popularized by Armstrong when he won his first Tour in 1999. Some riders and former champions say the tactic makes cycling too clinical.

Today's ride covers 119 miles from Vatan to Saint-Fargeau and again favors sprinters. The next earpiece-free stage comes Friday, a tricky course featuring one big climb and possibly many attacks. Armstrong suspects there will be an electronic change before then.

"My impression is that we'll have the radio on Friday," he said.

Armstrong is coming out of 3.5 years of retirement and chasing an eighth Tour title. Contador is aiming for a second title after winning in 2007. The Spanish mountain specialist was unable to defend his title last year because Astana was barred from the race because of doping scandals.

Armstrong says that talk of a feud between he and Contador is hyped by the media. Yet two days after telling French television there is some "tension" between he and Contador, the 37-year-old Texan spoke anew of "friction" with his Astana teammate. Only two seconds separate the riders.

"In the first week, the media are looking for stories to write," Armstrong said yesterday. "They analyze every little thing. They say, 'They hate each other.' It's not the case. There's a little bit of friction, of tension. We both want to win the Tour."

Armstrong won seven straight Tours from 1999 to 2005. While he understands that a rivalry can be healthy, he is also aware that it can backfire.

"The biggest tragedy would be that the both of us want it so bad that somebody else gets (the Tour win)," he said.

Nocentini finished 34th yesterday while Contador was 40th and Armstrong 46th on the route from Limoges to Issoudun. Nocentini stayed six seconds ahead of Contador.

Cavendish burst ahead to beat Norway's Thor Hushovd, whose grip on the sprinter's green jersey was reduced to six points. Tyler Farrar of the United States finished third.

"It was a really hard finish, slightly uphill with a lot of corners," Cavendish said.

Four riders were caught late in the race following a long breakaway. Cavendish then turned into the home straightaway before holding off Hushovd and finishing in 4 hours, 46 minutes, 43 seconds.

Last year, Cavendish won four stages but did not finish the race. He has now won seven stages in his Tour de France career.

"Cavendish is very, very fast," Hushovd said. "But it's true that he also has a very quick team."

The Day at the Tour de France

Stage: A mainly flat 120.9-mile trek between Limoges and Issoudun that saw cyclists riding without earpieces after an unpopular decision from Tour organizers to ban electronic equipment.

Winner: Mark Cavendish narrowly beat Thor Hushovd in a sprint finish. The British rider claimed his third stage win of this year's Tour by racing ahead in the final 200 yards and holding off Hushovd. Tyler Farrar of the United States was third.

Yellow Jersey: Rinaldo Nocentini of the AG2R-La Mondiale team held onto the overall lead by finishing in the main pack with Astana teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador. Nocentini is the first Italian to wear the yellow jersey since Alberto Elli in 2000.

Quote of the Day: "We poke a little fun at him because if you don't give him a bit of stick then you never know what might happen, he might get a bigger head. But we chopped him down to size pretty quick." — Australian rider Mark Renshaw on his teammate, Cavendish.

Next stage: Today's 11th stage is a 119.3-mile trek from Vatan to Saint-Fargeau, which again favors sprinters.

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