Lance gains time on chief rivals
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."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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