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A look ahead: Armstrong’s list of challengers diminishing fast

Seeing a 40-strong group ride into Morzine with Lance Armstrong at the end of the Tour’s first mountain stage on Saturday was quite a surprise — especially after the Postal team leader’s three Spanish climbers had turned on the screws up the Cat. 1 Col de la Ramaz, 25km from the end. But looking back to the action on the Ramaz, we saw three of Armstrong’s billed rivals — Italian Gilberto Simoni, Colombian Santiago Botero and Spaniard Aitor Gonzales — fall back and concede up to six minutes on the defending champion. It was a shock to see those three struggling while American Tyler Hamilton

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By John Wilcockson

Seeing a 40-strong group ride into Morzine with Lance Armstrong at the end of the Tour’s first mountain stage on Saturday was quite a surprise — especially after the Postal team leader’s three Spanish climbers had turned on the screws up the Cat. 1 Col de la Ramaz, 25km from the end.

But looking back to the action on the Ramaz, we saw three of Armstrong’s billed rivals — Italian Gilberto Simoni, Colombian Santiago Botero and Spaniard Aitor Gonzales — fall back and concede up to six minutes on the defending champion. It was a shock to see those three struggling while American Tyler Hamilton comfortably followed Postal’s Blue Train on his sixth day of riding with a fractured collarbone. Does Hamilton have more surprises in store?

Although Armstrong, still in second overall, now has a 2:37 deficit on Richard Virenque, don’t expect the veteran French climber to recover from his 190km-long break in 90-degree temperatures in time for Sunday’s rugged finish. Stage 8 is a brute, and the Postal team will not only be putting on the pressure to get rid of Virenque but also to allow Armstrong to gain time on his remaining chief rivals: Joseba Beloki of ONCE-Eroski, Jan Ullrich of Bianchi, Francisco Mancebo of ibanesto.com, Hamilton, Christophe Moreau of Crédit Agricole and Stefano Garzelli of Vini Caldirola — all of whom are in the top 25.

Armstrong hasn’t predicted anything about Sunday’s finish on the legendary climb of L’Alpe d’Huez, but it doesn’t need a degree in psychology to guess that this is where he is planning to put himself in position to win his fifth Tour de France.

Sunday’s 219-kilometer stage 8 not only finishes at the Alpe, but it also takes in this Tour’s highest mountain pass, the Col du Galibier at 8697 feet, 62km from the end. All the action will be crammed into the final 100 kilometers, from the moment the race reaches the foot of the Col du Télégraphe — which essentially is the start of 30 kilometers of uphill work (other than one brief downhill) to the Galibier summit.

This northern approach to the Galibier is unrelenting, and assuming that Armstrong’s men repeat their tempo-setting performance of Saturday, very few will be left with them at the top. The Spaniards Manuel Beltran, Roberto Heras and José Rubiera, and American George Hincapie, all looked superb as they paced Armstrong up the Ramaz on Saturday, while their teammates all contributed to the pace-making on the earlier climbs.

Armstrong will need to have at least two of his workhorses with him after the Galibier on Sunday, as there will surely be some sort of regrouping and perhaps dangerous attacks on the 40km-long descent before reaching the foot of the 14km L’Alpe d’Huez climb.

Ever since Italian legend Fausto Coppi won the first Tour stage to finish at L’Alpe d’Huez in 1952 — and kept the yellow jersey all the way to Paris — there has been a mythic quality to this alpine peak. Armstrong is acutely aware of the possibilities offered by the climb, as he clearly demonstrated at the 2001 Tour.

That year, the first mountain stage of the Tour finished on the Alpe, and Armstrong put in a stunning solo attack to finish the stage two minutes ahead of Ullrich and Beloki; 2:30 ahead of Moreau; and four minutes in front of Mancebo. A similar result Sunday would put Armstrong in total command of the centennial Tour.

It’s unlikely though that the defending champion will attack at the foot of the Alpe like he did two years ago, as he already has gained time on all of his potential challengers. Instead, he will probably follow Heras until the final 5km before making his move. In any case, it’s likely that Armstrong will be in yellow Sunday night.


John Wilcockson is working on his next book, “The 2003 Tour de France,” to be published in October by VeloPress. It can be pre-ordered from VeloPress, at 800/234-8356, or www.velogear.com