Lance? Contador? No answer just yet

ARCALIS, Andorra -- Many thought the Tour de France would hit the fast-forward button on the first mountaintop finish. Instead, the race pressed pause, and few of the big-picture questions were resolved.

The rider who seemed the least surprised about this was seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, who found himself in the unfamiliar position of watching someone on his own Astana team sprint away from him up the road -- but not too far away.

"That wasn't really to the plan, but I didn't expect him to go by the plan,'' Armstrong said after Alberto Contador of Spain made his first nonverbal statement of the Tour in Friday's Stage 7 by bolting away from the group of overall contenders late on the climb up to a ski station nestled in a rugged, spectacular pass.

Contador made up the 19 seconds he had lost to Armstrong in Monday's Stage 3 when the peloton split in crosswinds during a sprint stage, and a tad more. He's now in second place overall, two seconds ahead of Armstrong and six seconds behind Italy's Rinaldo Nocentini, who was part of an early breakaway group and crossed the finish line about three minutes ahead of Contador.

Nocentini is not a concern for the favorites in the Tour, and neither is stage winner Brice Feillu of France. Astana drove the peloton for most of the day, but by refraining from an all-out attack, the team seemingly passed on the yellow jersey and the responsibility for defending it over the next two Pyrenees stages. Was that really the strategy? Director Johan Bruyneel just shrugged when asked which scenario was more desirable.

Given that he has the winners of eight of the past 10 Tours on his roster, Bruyneel sounded awfully laissez-faire about tactics Friday, saying he just wanted the team to conserve energy and ad-lib at the end.

"We weren't going to put the brakes on anyone," he told French-speaking reporters. "If you felt good and you knew you could distance the others, go ahead, but be sure to talk to each other."

That's what Contador elected to do. Whether he discussed it with anyone was less certain.

"I wanted to try," he told reporters at the finish line, saying he felt good but knew he wouldn't be able to open up a big gap on anyone. "In the end, it was all for the good of the team. ... The body responded and that's a good sign that things are going well.

"Everyone would like to wear the yellow jersey, but it will make things a little more relaxed on the team if another [team] has the responsibility."

Once Contador was away, Armstrong said it was his obligation to stay with a chase group that included worrisome riders like Australia's Cadel Evans, who tried a couple of mini-attacks without success, and Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck.

Headwinds and high speeds made for tough going, and Armstrong said he never got into a comfortable rhythm, but observed he "felt less knackered than [he] thought [he] would be."

One rider mixing it up who wouldn't have been in that leaders' group a few years ago was Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins, the dynamic Brit who has won Olympic and world championship gold on the track but wasn't satisfied with his accomplishments.

Wiggins has devoted himself to losing weight and honing his climbing technique in the year since the Beijing Olympics in order to support teammate Christian Vande Velde's bid to finish on the podium.

Those efforts paid off in a scintillating ride Friday, as Wiggins, now fifth overall, finished with Armstrong's group on one of the hardest climbs in the race and protected Vande Velde, who is riding into form after a traumatic crash in early May.

"I'm an endurance athlete,'' Wiggins said bluntly as he stripped off his soaking jersey at the finish. "I'm 29 and it's about time I got my ass in gear, to be honest. I've been doing the road for eight years now. I had to leave the track behind and give it a good shot -- you can't do both. I always knew I was capable of this."

Wiggins' contribution could be even more crucial than expected, since Garmin lost gifted young climber Dan Martin of Ireland to tendinitis on the eve of the race and replaced him with Dutch classics specialist Martijn Maaskant.

"It's all about how much time you dedicate to something and the specificity of training," Garmin team physiologist Allen Lim said of Wiggins' ability to reinvent himself. "Someone like Bradley, he's an exceptional athlete as it is, and it's not that much of a transition. To be able to win [an Olympic] gold medal in the individual pursuit is a monumental physical achievement."

Vande Velde was often alone when the Tour went to high altitude last year but still finished a career-high fourth, completing his own transition from support rider to leader.

"I was hanging on there today, but it was good enough," Vande Velde said. "I'm beyond happy." The Chicago native is in eighth place, 1:18 shy of Contador's time, which is the barometer for every top rider now.

A week into the 2009 Tour, it's clear who's out of the money, but not at all clear how the spoils of victory will be divided -- either among the Astana riders or a small group of overall contenders.

Evans, Schleck, and 2008 winner Carlos Sastre are in a position where they can't afford to lose any more time and may be tempted to gain some in the next two stages, which feature considerable climbing but finish downhill. With those profiles, it's questionable whether or not attacks will be of much use.

If the denouement doesn't arrive until the last week in the Alps, that's fine with Armstrong.

"We'll have plenty of days at the end of the Tour where there'll only be a couple of guys together," he said.

Sounds like he intends to be one of them.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Follow her Twitter feed here or reach her at bonniedford@aol.com.