Lance moves closer to sixth straight title
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."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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