PARIS — Four years after his seventh Tour de France win, Lance Armstrong capped his return with an impressive third-place finish. Alberto Contador's second title, at age 26, was eye-catching in its own way — he's got two more than Armstrong had at the same age.
The 37-year-old Armstrong said the Spaniard has the potential to become a five-time Tour winner.
"Well, he's that good and he's not that old, so you can do the math," Armstrong said.
Armstrong is the second-oldest rider to reach the podium, but he was bested by his Astana teammate's devastating attacks in the mountains and a display of power in the time trials.
Back to competition this season after 3½ years of retirement, the Texan quickly realized he wouldn't be able to unsettle his younger rival on the road and challenged him mentally.
Armstrong criticized his teammate's strategy following the first mountain stage in the Pyrenees, hinting that the Spaniard was running against the team common interests. He then revealed tensions within the Astana team due to their rivalry.
Even after securing the yellow jersey in the Alps, Contador was confronted by his team for his tactical choices.
Asked Sunday on French TV what the hardest moment in this race, Contador said: "It was in the hotel."
"It has been an especially difficult Tour for me, but I savor it and it is more special because of it," he said after the awards ceremony.
But the Spaniard didn't even take a tumble and was so dominant that his reign on the Tour seems as if it could last a long time.
"Contador is first of all a great climber, very elegant and flowing," Tour director Christian Prudhomme said. "But he also showed a great strength of character."
Armstrong plans to try his luck another time next year on the Tour with his new RadioShack team. He acknowledged Contador's superiority.
"Contador is that good, so I don't see how I would have been higher than that, even in the other years," said Armstrong, who won the Tour seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005 before retiring. "I think his performance this year would have beaten my performances in '01 and '04 and '05."
Contador already is one of cycling's greats, having won all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain, something Armstrong never achieved in his career.
"It was a hard Tour," said Contador, who had to sit out last year while Astana was banned because of previous doping scandals. "Before leaving, I knew I had to be ready both physically and mentally. At the end of each stage, I said 'one day less'. There were tensions, but the situation has normalized. And I am very happy with the result."
Even if Armstrong returns in 2010 with a strong team fully dedicated to his ambitions, Contador's greatest rival in the future could just as well be Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
At only 24 years old, the climber finished second, 4 minutes, 11 seconds behind Contador. He has now twice won the Tour de France's white jersey awarded to its best rider under 25 and became the first rider to take the shirt twice since 1997 tour winner Jan Ullrich, who won it three times between 1996 and 1998.
"I'm coming back to take the yellow jersey," Schleck said. "Alberto showed this year that he was the strongest, the real boss of the peloton. I have much respect for him, but next year I'm coming to win."
Armstrong, who will be approaching 39 years of age next July, would bet on Contador in his duel with Schleck.
"He time trials a lot better," he said of the Spaniard. "Andy's time trialing I suspect will improve. He's a little younger. With young athletes, you never know how they respond to what comes their way. Alberto is pretty serious and hard-headed and competitive, so I think he'll stay focused."
Armstrong became the second oldest rider to make the podium after Raymond Poulidor of France finished third in 1976 at age 40. Armstrong, however, expects to perform better in 2010 with another season under his belt.
"I'm staying positive," Armstrong said. "My level will be a little better next year."
Armstrong wants to come to the Tour with a strong outfit, including current teammates Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloeden, and together they could challenge Contador.
The Spaniard's future is still unclear. But whatever he decides, it's almost certain that the Contador-Armstrong rivalry will reignite in 2010.
"I'm going left, he's going right," Armstrong said. "See you on the start line next year."
Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten contributed.