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Lance moves closer to sixth straight title

7/22/2004

L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- Mouth open, silver chain dangling
out of his unzipped yellow jersey, Lance Armstrong pedaled
relentlessly through a sea of frenzied fans crowding his path in
the Alps.

On one of cycling's most famous peaks, Armstrong shut out the
cheers and taunts Wednesday to focus on finishing off his chief
rival and locking up a record sixth straight Tour de France title.

The Texan won the first time trial to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski
station, surging up the legendary 9.6-mile climb to establish
beyond any doubt that he is unmatched on the mountains.

He finished his second consecutive stage victory in 39 minutes,
41 seconds, his legs whirring through 21 hairpin bends lined with
hundreds of thousands of spectators honking horns, ringing cowbells
and yelling in a cacophony of languages.

The performance was so dominant that Armstrong overtook his last
true challenger for the overall title, Ivan Basso, even though the
Italian started two minutes earlier.

With four days left in the three-week cycling marathon, only
disaster could prevent Armstrong from adding to his string of five
consecutive titles.

"I'm real careful about counting to the number six," Armstrong
said. "I'll do that on the final lap on the Champs-Elysees."

Only three riders, including Armstrong's teammate Jose Azevedo,
finished within two minutes of the American. The others were 1997
champion and five-time overall runner-up Jan Ullrich, 61 seconds
back in second place, and his teammate Andreas Kloden, 1:41 behind
in third.

Basso was eighth, 2:33 off Armstrong's pace. While still closest
to Armstrong, his total deficit grew from 1:25 to 3:48.

"I hoped to lose less time," Basso said, "but Lance was
superior."

Armstrong caught Basso and passed him just after riding over a
red-white-and-blue Texas state flag drawn on the black pavement.
Basso glanced left at Armstrong, who just looked straight ahead.

"That is incredibly motivating for a rider when you see you're
catching somebody," Armstrong said. "I have a ton of respect for
Ivan. I think he's the biggest threat in the race. I think he's the
brightest future for the Tour."

Ullrich climbed from fifth to fourth overall, but his deficit
grew to 7:55. Kloden, lags by 5:03. Azevedo was fourth Wednesday,
1:45 back, and is fifth overall -- remarkable for a rider who has
concentrated on helping his team leader.

Armstrong now has three individual stage victories this Tour --
all in the mountains, taking his career total to 19. He trained
relentlessly on climbs before the Tour, repeatedly scaling L'Alpe
d'Huez.

Last year, Armstrong wound up just 61 seconds ahead of Ullrich
in Paris. The shakiness of that victory -- by far his narrowest
winning margin since he came back from cancer to take his first
Tour in 1999 -- spurred his preparations.

"This is not a final exam you can cram for. This is the Tour,
and it requires a yearlong commitment. You come here in the month
of May when it's a ghost town, and you simply ride up and down the
mountain," Armstrong said.

"These are things we do, have always done, and personally love
more than anything. The only people here are those paving the roads
or working in the one or two hotels that are open. There's not a
million people on the side of the road. Just a few people, and that
makes it beautiful and makes the difference between winning and
losing."

As overall leader, Armstrong had the advantage of being the last
of the 157 riders to start Wednesday's individual race against the
clock. That enabled him to measure himself against his opponents --
notably Basso.

Wearing black shoes, black socks and his coveted yellow jersey
as overall leader, which he reclaimed Tuesday by winning the first
stage in the Alps, Armstrong found energy for a sprint finish.

"I didn't expect to gain so much time on Ivan Basso," he said.
"When I set out, I didn't know how fast I was going, how my form
was. But a spectator said, 'A minute ahead.' I replied, 'No, no,
that's not possible."'

At times, crowds covered the road, parting only at the last
moment as riders approached. Some fans ran alongside the bicycles,
waving flags that came close to catching handlebars or wheels.
Others forced riders to swerve.

It was the first time Tour organizers held a time trial on the
legendary climb. Armstrong said it was "a bad idea," adding:
"It's not safe for anybody."

Some riders said fans booed or offered beer. Armstrong
complained that some German fans were "horrible" but said crowd
animosity "motivates me more than anything."

"What I don't understand is when I watch the television, they
cheer for everybody. They don't spit on them," he said.

But he added: "This is big-time sport. People are emotional and
excited. ... It doesn't take away from my desire to win. I think it
puts a little fuel on the fire."

The ascent is classed as "hors categorie," or unrated -- the
hardest on cycling's scale of difficulty. But Armstrong still
climbed at an average speed of 14.5 mph.

"Lots of emotion, lots of adrenaline," Armstrong said. "I
wanted it bad because of the history around this mountain and the
importance to the race."