PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France -- Start icing the champagne.
Texan Lance Armstrong cleared his path to a record sixth
straight Tour de France crown, overpowering rivals to win the 13th
stage Saturday. His two-day display of dominant mountain riding has
all but decided cycling's showcase event even before it veers into
the Alps next week.
Only Italian Ivan Basso managed to stay with the five-time
champion on the devastating ascent to the Plateau de Beille, the
last of seven climbs on a sun-baked, 127.7-mile trek through the
As Armstrong and Basso rode through cheering crowds along the
steep, snaking road, other riders scattered down the mountain,
their hopes of dethroning the 32-year-old Texan evaporating with
the sweat off their brows.
Jan Ullrich, considered Armstrong's toughest rival, conceded
defeat after the steep 9.9-mile climb mined with hairpin turns.
"I have rarely pushed myself so hard," said Ullrich, the 1997
Tour champ and five-time runner-up to Armstrong. "But after seven
mountains and more than 200 kilometers under conditions that should
really be ideal for me, I must admit: Lance appears to be
unbeatable this year."
French champion Thomas Voeckler held onto the overall lead and
the prized yellow jersey -- barely. In Friday and Saturday's stages
in the Pyrenees, Armstrong trimmed Voeckler's lead from more than
nine minutes to just 22 seconds.
Two punishing stages and a slightly easier one await in the
Alps, Armstrong's playground in previous Tours, as well as two time
Two weeks into the three-week marathon, only a collapse by
Armstrong, an accident or a huge surprise from the few riders still
with an outside chance, appear to stand in the way of a victory in
Paris on July 25.
Armstrong used a final burst of speed to overtake Basso at the
end of the 13th stage. He also won here in 2002. The stage win was
Armstrong's 17th in 10 Tours and his first this year. He also won
the team time trials with his U.S. Postal Service squad the last
On Friday, in the first Pyrenean stage, the placings were
reversed: Basso took his first win and Armstrong was second as
other rivals watched in dismay as the champion vanished into the
As in previous years, when he launched his victory march to
Paris in the mountains, Armstrong said the race wasn't over yet and
insisted that, at his age, he is no longer at the height of his
"As I always say, the Tour finishes in Paris," he said.
"There are still the Alps and many dangerous stages.
"My best years were 2000 and 2001," he added, leaving out his
dominant wins in 1999 and 2002 and his narrow victory last year.
"The time of being the boss of the Tour de France is over.
"Before the Tour this year I was insecure. But I think that's
what all great champions are. They're worried about their place,
worried about losing their place on top, and that's what keeps them
Ullrich, left behind for the second day on the final climb,
finished 2 minutes, 42 seconds behind, in sixth place. He came into
the Tour seemingly determined to dethrone Armstrong, but his race
ended in the Pyrenees.
Ullrich is 6:39 behind. Last year, he was just 61 seconds behind
Tyler Hamilton, another pre-Tour favorite, pulled out of the
race with severe back pain. Roberto Heras, a former U.S. Postal
Service team member, placed 49th, 21:35 behind Armstrong and Basso,
who finished in the same time. Iban Mayo, a Basque rider whose
climbing skills deserted him, placed 115th -- 37:40 back.
There are still cyclists to watch in the next week. Aside from
Basso, they include German Andreas Kloden, Ullrich's teammate who
is fourth overall, 2:56 behind the Texan, and Francisco Mancebo of
Spain, fifth and 3:06 back.
Basso, 1:17 behind Armstrong overall and third in the standings,
is perhaps the biggest remaining adversary. But he is not a very
strong time-trial rider, unlike Armstrong.
Basso, 26, gave up 2:02 to the champion in the final time trial
last year and finished seventh overall. Still, that was an
improvement from his 11th-place finish in 2002, when he was
anointed the Tour's best young rider.
"We take him very seriously. He's riding super-strong," said
Armstrong, who added that his team tried to recruit the Italian
last year. "He's a rider we consider to be a threat and one of the
brightest hopes for the future of the Tour de France."
Voeckler dropped away on the last, brutal climb to the Plateau
de Beille, but he was able to keep his overall lead. It probably
won't last long.
"I hung onto this jersey with my guts," he said.
Armstrong, who had set out Saturday with the aim of taking back
the yellow jersey he so covets, was impressed. He said his team
kept telling him through his radio that Voeckler was being left far
behind -- only to reverse course and say he was still hanging in.
"It's incredible," Armstrong said. "This guy has real
"He deserves to have that jersey for another day or however
long until he loses it."