Weening barely wins stage
GERARDMER, France -- Lance Armstrong looked around for help and found none. He was alone, on a Tour de France climb, his rivals swarming all over him.
Armstrong's usually trusty teammates failed him Saturday in the first encounter with the mountains, unable to match the punishing pace set on the day's final ascent by riders determined to bring down the six-time champion.
"If it's two more weeks of days like today then you're in trouble," said Armstrong, who kept his overall lead after finishing in 20th place.
Digging in deep, Armstrong found the will and the way to fend off most of his challengers in the eighth stage, which was won by Dutch rider Pieter Weening in a sprint with Andreas Kloden. Armstrong and key rivals Jan Ullrich and Alexander Vinokourov arrived in a pack, 27 seconds behind the two leaders.
The collapse of the Discovery Channel team and the strong challenges by the powerful German T-Mobile squad bode ill for Armstrong as harder climbs loom Sunday and next week in the Alps.
"Definitely, a crisis within our team on the final climb," Armstrong said. "For whatever reason I was left alone. We had a bad day as a team and that makes it that much harder and I had to cover some big moves myself."
T-Mobile is built around Ullrich, Vinokourov and Kloden -- challengers Armstrong has decisively beaten in the past. This Tour represents their last shot at the Texan because Armstrong is retiring at the end of the three-week race on July 24.
Ullrich won the Tour in 1997 but has since finished runner-up to Armstrong three times. Kloden was second last year, when Armstrong got his record sixth win. Vinokourov, third in 2003, is perhaps the biggest danger. The Kazakhstan champion has explosive acceleration on climbs, is unpredictable and hungers for success having missed last year's Tour because of injury.
He was first to challenge Armstrong on the final Col de la Schlucht climb, surging ahead. Armstrong accelerated and caught him, only for Vinokourov to break again, following French rider Christophe Moreau.
Once more, Armstrong laid chase, followed by Ullrich. But Paolo Savoldelli, the only one of Armstrong's eight teammates who managed to stay with them to this point, was unable to match the bursts of speed, falling back and leaving Armstrong alone.
Armstrong and the other riders eyed each other warily as they continued ascending. Then, after another attack from Vinokourov, Kloden suddenly sprinted ahead. Armstrong, knowing the German trailed him by 2 minutes, 29 seconds in the overall standings, cut his losses and let him go, concentrating instead on Vinokourov and Ullrich.
"You have to pick your fights. You can't cover them all," Armstrong said. "I was trying to do my best and minimize the damage.
"I was isolated, definitely suffering," he added.
Kloden surged away, his pink team jersey unzipped and flapping in the wind.
Weening of the Rabobank team was riding ahead. Kloden caught the Dutchman at the top of the 10.4-mile ascent, and they raced downhill to the finish in Gerardmer, in eastern France.
There, Weening beat Kloden by a whisker. He covered the 143.8-mile route, which started in the German town of Pforzheim, in 5 hours, 3 minutes and 54 seconds.
Armstrong, Ullrich and Vinokourov were part of a 32-rider pack at the end. Ullrich was sixth and Vinokourov 10th. Three of Armstrong's teammates trailed nearly a minute behind, and the five others were a whopping 2:30 back.
Overall, Armstrong remained 1 minute, 2 seconds ahead of Vinokourov and 1:36 ahead of Ullrich. Jens Voigt of Team CSC moved up to second place overall, 1:00 behind Armstrong. Vinokourov is third. Kloden rose to ninth, picking up a time bonus for his second-place finish and cutting his deficit to Armstrong to 1:50.
Armstrong suggested that his team may have overworked itself while protecting his lead and the famed yellow jersey that goes with it in fast flat stages the first week.
Armstrong also had not scouted Saturday's final climb, as he does in the Alps and Pyrenees. The ascent was easier and lower than those to come.
"We really tested his legs, and we saw that he is in pretty good form, but that his team is not," Vinokourov said. "Even though this is hard to judge in a medium mountain, it's good for morale. It's a good sign. We wanted to attack him before the high mountains, we didn't want to wait."
Armstrong could have another bad day Sunday if his team struggles again on six climbs along the 106.3-mile route from Gerardmer to Mulhouse.
"We have some talking to do tonight," he said. "We held onto the jersey, but there's a lot of bruised egos on our team and we have to try and recover.
"But I know those guys, they're going to be just as disappointed if not more disappointed than I am," he added. "So I'll think they'll get better."
While the big names were exchanging their first real blows, Dutchman Weening had his day. The 24-year-old Rabobank rider belonged to a group of seven riders who broke away.
Their lead reached a maximum lead of 6 minutes, 10 seconds before Weening made his move on the Col de la Schlucht.
"I was feeling really strong; it was useless for me to stay with the other six. I fought all day and it's incredible," Weening said.
"This year I was sometimes really close and this time I made it," he said.
Involved in a bad crash on Friday, Tom Boonen, holder of the points classification green jersey, was dropped on every hill and struggled in the last climb.
He finished more than 17 minutes off the pace with Australian Robbie McEwen who, like his Belgian sprint rival, won two stages in the first week.
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