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A look ahead to Stage 15: Is Armstrong ready for a stage win?

After out-climbing his main rivals on Saturday to finish second on the first of two mighty stages in the Pyrénées, Lance Armstrong said it was “incredibly, incredibly hot.” Then he predicted that Sunday’s stage 15 will be “the hardest stage of the Tour.” He then talked to journalists at the Ax-3 Domaines ski resort Saturday night about his preparations for the upcoming stage. “It’s just a question of getting out of here as fast as possible, starting to hydrate, starting to eat, starting to rest and recover,” he said. “We had a very early start to the day once again, an hour-and-a-half in the

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By John Wilcockson

A look ahead to Stage 15: Is Armstrong ready for a stage win?

A look ahead to Stage 15: Is Armstrong ready for a stage win?

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After out-climbing his main rivals on Saturday to finish second on the first of two mighty stages in the Pyrénées, Lance Armstrong said it was “incredibly, incredibly hot.” Then he predicted that Sunday’s stage 15 will be “the hardest stage of the Tour.”

He then talked to journalists at the Ax-3 Domaines ski resort Saturday night about his preparations for the upcoming stage. “It’s just a question of getting out of here as fast as possible, starting to hydrate, starting to eat, starting to rest and recover,” he said. “We had a very early start to the day once again, an hour-and-a-half in the bus to get to the start, and I’m sure [my teammates] will have an a hour-and-a-half to get to the hotel tonight. It doesn’t make it any easier, doesn’t make it human … and we have an early day tomorrow.”

Armstrong is right that Sunday’s 205.5km stage is the toughest of the Tour. It has six progressively difficult climbs starting with the Cat. 2 Portet d’Aspet at 85km, followed by four Cat. 1s and the finish up the hors-cat Plat d’Adet. That’s just over 16,000 feet of climbing — an arduous task in temperatures that are forecast to continue in the mid-80s.

When Armstrong took the stage at Pla d’Adet in 2001, he had his then teammate Roberto Heras set a fierce pace on the steeper 10-percent pitches in the first part of the 10.3km climb. The Texan then went ahead on his own, passing all-day breakaway rider Laurent Jalabert and going on to win by a minute from his only true challenger, Jan Ullrich.

A tough day in the saddle

A tough day in the saddle

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Ullrich showed Saturday that he still has the desire to win the Tour, and he said again after the stage finish that he and his T-Mobile teammates will keep attacking until the finish in Paris next weekend. But Ullrich isn’t Armstrong’s only competition. Ivan Basso showed great climbing form Saturday, with constant aggression.

Basso’s CSC team manager Bjarne Riis even said that, in seven years of Armstrong’s team controlling the Tour, he has never seen the Texan as vulnerable as he appears to be right now. Armstrong did admit that his team couldn’t follow the “sprinting” tempo set by Ullrich’s T-Mobile squad on the Port de Pailhères on Saturday, but Armstrong himself looked as strong as ever.

Riis’s assessment of the six-time Tour champion may only be talk to help inspire his star rider, but if that does indeed inspire Basso to even greater efforts then we are in for one helluva stage Sunday.

Pla d’Adet has seen the finish of eight Tour stages in the past 30 years, the most decisive being the Tour-winning solo attacks by Lucien Van Impe in 1976 and Armstrong in 2001. The Discovery Channel team leader said Saturday that he would dearly love to win there again — not only because this will be the final mountaintop finish of Armstrong’s storied career, but also because this is the 10th anniversary of the fatal crash of his Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli on the 15-percent descent of the Portet d’Aspet.

When stage 15 passes the Fabio Casartelli Memorial at kilometer 89 on Sunday afternoon, it will stir strong memories of the young Italian racer and the horror of his accident. As Armstrong did four years ago, he would be proud to win the stage at Pla d’Adet and dedicate his victory to Fabio.

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