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Lance gains time on chief rivals

7/17/2004

LA MONGIE, France -- The mountains bring out the best in Lance Armstrong.

The Tour de France champion took a big step toward a record
sixth straight crown Friday with a display of climbing in the
Pyrenees that left contenders dazed.

Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras saw
their dreams of dethroning the Texan fade as Armstrong's blue
jersey disappeared into the distance on a punishing ascent to the
La Mongie ski station.

Armstrong moved from sixth to second in the overall standings
following a ride in which he was runner-up to stage winner Ivan
Basso of Italy.

Armstrong is 5:24 behind France's Thomas Voeckler, but Ullrich
is the champion's main challenger. Another Pyrenean stage will be
run Saturday, and the Alps and a final time trial are still to come
before the July 25 finish.

"Jan's not finished," Armstrong said. "He starts slow and
he's a tough guy who doesn't give up. He might have taken one on
the chin today, but he always comes back and is strong in the last
week."

Armstrong is indeed comfortable in these parts. The last time
the Tour covered this route -- in 2002 -- Armstrong won both stages.
Now, if Armstrong's rivals need to quickly find a way to unsettle
the 32-year-old cycling great. Otherwise, another victory most
likely awaits in Paris.

Armstrong was not going all out at the end of Friday's 12th
stage, content to let Basso win a stage for the first time in four
Tours.

"It was a pleasure for me to let him win," Armstrong said.
"He was super strong."

Ullrich, abandoned in the 8-mile final ascent, finished 20th, a
daunting 2 minutes, 30 seconds behind. The German, the 1997 winner
and a five-time runner-up, was thrown off by a storm doused riders
as they ascended the first of two climbs.

"It was a bad day," he said. "I noticed at the first mountain
I didn't have good legs and I was cold on the downhill. But I
fought until the end. With good weather and good legs, maybe I can
come back."

His team manager, Walter Godefroot, added: "I don't know what
to say, it's really an uppercut. ... "We're groggy."

Just 55 seconds behind before Friday's stage, Ullrich now trails
Armstrong by 3:37 overall -- a possibly insurmountable margin. Last
year, Armstrong beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.

Baking sunshine followed by rain on the 122.7-mile trek from
Castelsarrasin in southwest France played into Armstrong's hands.

"First the heat, then the thunder, then the sun again,"
Armstrong said. "For the overall standings it is great."

A burst of speed by Armstrong's teammates did initial damage on
the final climb, leaving other riders flailing. Armstrong and Basso
were alone over the last 1.2 miles, riding together to the line.
Armstrong finished in the same time as Basso and earned 12 bonus
seconds as runner-up.

"Armstrong is the strongest man on this Tour," Basso said. "I
think he's still got gas in his tank."

Hamilton, an American and former Armstrong teammate, was the
first major rival to fall off the back of the pack. He finished
3:27 behind and trails Armstrong by 4:22 overall. He said a back
injury from crash last week prevented him from doing better.

Heras, another former teammate turned challenger, was 2:57
slower and saw his overall deficit to Armstrong grow to 5:18.

Iban Mayo, a Basque rider hoping for victory in front of the
tens of thousands of supporters who lined the wet route, was only
1:03 back, in ninth place. But his Tour had been all but lost in a
crash in the first week and he trails Armstrong by 6:42.

Voeckler also struggled in the last climb but limited the
damage. He placed 41st, 3:59 behind, and saw his overall lead on
Armstrong shrink. He led by more than nine minutes at the start of
the stage.

"When they accelerated in the final climb I couldn't follow and
I finished as best I could," he said.

Voeckler acknowledged he could lose the yellow jersey in
Saturday's even more punishing stage.

"I will fight but I don't know if it will be enough," he said.
"It's not news that Lance Armstrong loves this bad weather. When
the sun is out, his adversaries will be more comfortable."

If Armstrong triumphs and his challengers falter again, the
127.7-mile route from Lannemezan to the Plateau de Beille could
prove decisive. The route has seven climbs, including a monstrous
final ascent.

"I think he's going to strike a sword blow," said French rider
Richard Virenque, 37th on Friday, 3:27 back.

Basso, anointed the Tour's best young rider in 2002, is the
closest real challenger, 1:09 behind in sixth place. He finished
11th in the 2002 Tour and improved to seventh last year. He said
before the start of the Tour he does not expect to unseat Armstrong
this year.

"He can be one of the next two winners," said Basso team
manager Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour winner. "I don't know if he's
ready for the moment, but he's very good."