Armstrong remains second to Voeckler
NIMES, France -- Lance Armstrong is looking over his shoulder. But this time it's to see how far back his main rivals are, not how close.
Although Frenchman Thomas Voeckler still leads the Tour de France by 22 seconds, other considered contenders to Armstrong have drifted away.
Armstrong and other top riders caught their breath Sunday, when Spaniard Aitor Gonzalez won the flat 14th stage from Carcassonne to Nimes.
The stage victories was Gonzalez's first in three Tours. The main pack was way back when the Spaniard won the 119.6-mile swing through southern France.
Armstrong, 39th, rolled in 14 minutes, 12 seconds later alongside Voeckler.
To the likes of Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo, watching Armstrong surging closer to a record-breaking sixth straight victory must have been soul destroying these last 15 days.
Sharp in the prologue, strong in the team time trial, dominant in the Pyrenees mountains -- the Texan has simply shown no weakness. Only mishap or a lapse will likely deprive him of glory in Paris on July 25.
What a difference a year makes.
In 2003, Armstrong of Austin, Texas, suffered terribly. He fell off his bike twice, and also had technical problems with it. Blighted by dehydration, a confidence crisis and physical worries, Armstrong used every ounce of fighting spirit to beat German Ullrich by 61 seconds.
"Last year I had a lot of problems with my private life," said Armstrong, who divorced from his wife shortly after the 2003 race. "This year, I am, like the team, more relaxed."
He had never been pushed so close.
But this time the powerful Ullrich has been a major flop and sits 6:39 adrift of Armstrong with just six stages remaining. After Monday's rest day, cyclists head to the Alps.
The race winner in 1997, Ullrich was earmarked as Armstrong's biggest rival. He looked confident and muscular after shedding weight.
Beginning badly in the opening day prologue stage, he conceded 15 seconds to Armstrong. On July 7, as the rain thundered down in Arras, he took another blow as the smooth-running U.S. Postal team helped extend Armstrong's lead over him to 55 by clinching the team time trial.
Not to worry, thought Ullrich's T-Mobile team: our leader will catch up in the Pyrenees.
After several flat stages, and a hilly route through the Massif Central, the gap remained heading into the Pyrenees on July 16.
Ullrich and Mayo -- hampered by a spill early in the race -- were expected to attack. They tried and failed.
Only Italian Ivan Basso managed to match Armstrong's ferocious pace on stages 12 and 13.
Armstrong eased up to allow Basso his first career stage victory in Friday's 122.5-mile trek from Castelsarrasin to La Mongie.
In Saturday's 127.4-mile slog from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille, Basso and Armstrong again broke clear. In a sprint to the line, Armstrong took his 17th career stage win to sneak closer behind Voeckler.
Hamilton, his former Postal teammate, abandoned the Tour for the first time -- severe back pains too much for even this tough fighter.
Mayo wilted in the sun, while Ullrich grimaced -- unable to churn those big gears anymore.
Basso, the Team CSC leader, now emerges as the No. 1 contender.
Asked if Ullrich can still threaten, Armstrong said he'd never write off his rival. But Postal's team manager Johan Bruyneel is emphatic the German's bid is over.
"Six minutes down already so that is a lot," Bruyneel said. "Other rivals are more dangerous. Basso obviously, who is the only rider who can stay with Lance."
Armstrong called Basso "a threat, absolutely."
"He'll ride good in the Alps and a tough final time trial."
While Armstrong enjoys Monday's rest day with a gentle cruise with teammates, others will scratch their heads wondering how, when and if they will come back.
"We come in with the perception of who's dangerous and that changes daily," Armstrong said. "We just take their name off the list and add somebody else. All along I knew Basso would be dangerous."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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