Voeckler lead down to 22 seconds
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 Pyrenees.
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 trials.
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 two years.
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 distance.
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 powers.
"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 there."
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 his rival.
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 panache.
"He deserves to have that jersey for another day or however long until he loses it."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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