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Lance continues amazing dominance

7/23/2004

LE GRAND-BORNAND, France -- Overpowering in the mountains,
now unbeatable in a sprint. Seems there's nothing Lance Armstrong
can't do as he rides inexorably into Tour de France history,
utterly outclassing his rivals.

With a stunning final dash of speed, Armstrong snatched victory
from German Andreas Kloden at the end of the Tour's hardest Alpine
stage, pedaling so furiously that his bicycle swung wildly beneath him.

The win Thursday was Armstrong's fourth this Tour -- matching his
best in previous years when he also dominated -- and his third in
three consecutive days, allowing him to all but lock up a record
sixth-straight crown.

It also was perhaps the most incredible. Even Armstrong seemed
to find his sprint finish hard to believe. A beaming smile on his
face, he jubilantly pumped his fists in the air as he zoomed past
Kloden, who seemed destined to win until Armstrong edged him at the
line.

"No gifts this year," the five-time champion said. "I want to
win."

Aside from satisfaction, the victory earned Armstrong 20 bonus
seconds that helped extend his already sizable overall lead on
Italian Ivan Basso to 4 minutes, 9 seconds. Barring disaster, that
is more than enough to carry the Texan through to the finish in
Paris on Sunday to become the only six-time winner of the
101-year-old cycling marathon.

"Sweet," he told teammate Floyd Landis as they hugged at the
finish.

"You're the man. Nice sprint. I'm glad you got it," Landis
replied.

Armstrong's original plan had been to let Landis win. But in the
end, the chance for a 20th career individual victory in his
favorite cycling race was too good to pass up.

At the top of the last of five climbs on the 126.8-mile trek
through the Alps, Armstrong reached an arm over to Landis and told
him to try for what would have been his first victory. The finish
was eight miles away, at the end of a long, speedy descent to Le
Grand-Bornand.

"I said, 'How bad do you want to win a stage in the Tour de
France?' He said, 'Real bad,"' Armstrong recounted later. "I
said, 'How fast can you go downhill?' and he said, 'I go downhill
real fast.' He said, 'Can I do it?' And I said, 'Sure you can do
it.' Then I told him, 'Run like you stole something, Floyd."'

Landis zoomed away but was quickly caught by German Jan Ullrich,
Armstrong's big rival. Armstrong laid chase, followed by Basso and
Kloden. Together, Ullrich, Basso and Kloden had been the only
riders able to stay with the two Americans on the last climb up the
Col de la Croix Fry.

Hurtling toward the finish, the five riders eyed each other and
jostled for position. Armstrong, distinctive in his overall
leader's yellow jersey, put his sunglasses back on and took a
couple of sips from his drink bottle.

Just after they passed under a blue inflatable arch marking 1/2
mile to go, Kloden made his move, spurting suddenly ahead to build
a slight lead through the final corners.

But then, when it was almost too late, Armstrong hit the highest
of his many gears. With a final glance over his shoulder and within
sight of the line, he rocketed off in pursuit and found just enough
speed to beat Kloden by a whisker.

"Something came over me and I said, 'OK. I have to go for it.
To get to win in the sprints is exciting,"' Armstrong said. "When
I first started I thought, 'I'm not going to catch 'em.' ... But
the finish line was far enough away that I made it through."

He dedicated his win to Landis, who led his boss up the grinding
final climb. Landis' pace was so punishing that none but Basso,
Kloden and Ullrich -- two, three, and four in the overall standings
behind Armstrong -- could follow.

"He was the man of the day," Armstrong said. "In the Tour de
France, to go to the front of the climb and ride tempo and end up
with five guys is very hard to do."

"I really wanted him to win the stage," he added. "But it
didn't work out that way."

When they hugged at the finish, still perched on their bikes,
Landis told Armstrong: "I couldn't go any more."

The 28-year-old, racing in his third Tour, finished last of the
five in the sprint. Kloden was second, in the same time as
Armstrong, with Ullrich third and Basso fourth, both one second
back. Kloden is 5:11 behind Armstrong overall. Ullrich, the 1997
Tour champion and a five-time runner-up, is 8:08 back.

Armstrong has simply been in a different class.

He won the first Alpine stage on Tuesday, beating Basso, and
rocketed to another overpowering win Wednesday in a time trial up
the legendary ascent to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski resort.

He also beat Basso in the Pyrenees, having let the 26-year-old
Italian win the first stage in his promising career a day earlier.

Since then, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

"I've given gifts in the Tour de France, and very rarely has it
ever come back to help me," Armstrong said. "This is the biggest
bike race in the world and it means more to me than any bike
race."

He will be a favorite to take a fifth stage win, a record for
him in one Tour, in a time trial Saturday that will cement the top
placings before Sunday's ride to Paris.

Apart from sprinters, who battle for the glory of winning on the
crowd-packed Champs-Elysees, most riders treat that last stage as a
lap of honor. Last year, Armstrong sipped champagne as he pedaled.

By picking up points on all but one of Thursday's climbs, French
rider Richard Virenque guaranteed that he will win a record seventh
mountain prize on Sunday.

Points are awarded to the first few riders over each climb, and
Virenque has been gathering them as the race has looped around
France. Armstrong has not actively pursued that trophy, but still
is second in the mountain rankings thanks to his climbing
strengths.