MORZINE-AVORIAZ – Alberto Contador said watching Lance Armstrong suffer during the Tour de France's tough eighth stage left him feeling sympathy, as well as admiration, for the American.
Armstrong endured arguably his worst day of his career on the race when he crashed several times Sunday before trailing home almost 12 minutes behind stage winner Andy Schleck.
The American's bid for an eighth yellow jersey is now virtually over, a situation which, surprisingly, provoked feelings of sympathy from old foe Contador.
"When I saw (the stage) on television I thought about all the things he'd accomplished in his career," Contador, the reigning champion, said during the race's first rest day Monday.
"He really had a lot of bad luck, but still you don't like to see a champion end up like that. I admire Armstrong, but maybe even more now than before."
Contador's remarks come as a surprise less than a year after he said he had never admired the American, and never will.
Cancer survivor Armstrong won the race seven years in a row from 1999-2005, after which he retired before making a second comeback in 2009.
Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 with Armstrong's former team Discovery Channel before they pulled out of cycling.
The Spaniard joined Astana for 2008, but that year the team were not invited to the race -- a sanction for their exclusion in 2007 when Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.
When Armstrong made his return to the sport in 2009, it was with Astana -- who were under new management.
However Contador and Armstrong's cohabitation at the 2009 race was a tense affair. Contador was the team leader, but Armstrong could not resist the temptation to show his own ambitions, leading to a division of loyalties in the team.
Armstrong eventually finished third overall last year as Contador went on to claim his second victory with a lead of over four minutes on Luxemburger Andy Schleck.
After the race, tension transformed into a brief war of words with Contador saying that although Armstrong "is a great rider and had a great Tour, on a personal level I have never admired him and never will".
Contador meanwhile said he is satisfied with his race up till now.
Despite sitting third overall at 1min 01sec behind Cadel Evans, with Andy Schleck in second place at 20sec, the Spaniard said it will soon be time to target the real challengers.
The third week in the Pyrenees features four tough days of climbing, before a long time trial on the penultimate stage.
"Soon I will have to pick which riders I really need to keep an eye on," the Spaniard added.
"For the moment there's quite a bunch still in contention, but my biggest rival is Andy Schleck.
"Still, Evans (Levi) Leipheimer and (Denis) Menchov are all strong time triallists, so I can't allow them to take too much off me."