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A war of seconds

Lance Armstrong made it through an epic day in the Pyrénées Saturday, but he only just kept the race leader's yellow jersey on his back after a frantic finale to the 197.5km stage 13 of the 2003 Tour de France. The four-time Tour champion was attacked from all sides on the grinding, 9.1km climb to the Ax-3 Domaines ski area high in the French Pyrénées, but hung on to finish fourth and retain the maillot jaune by a scant 15 seconds over Bianchi’s Jan Ullrich. Armstrong admitted that he was fatigued from the efforts in Friday's individual time trial and tried to limit his losses when Ullrich

Sastre wins as Armstrong-Ullrich battle tightens

By Andrew Hood

Ullrich makes his move

Ullrich makes his move

Photo: AFP

Lance Armstrong made it through an epic day in the Pyrénées Saturday, but he only just kept the race leader’s yellow jersey on his back after a frantic finale to the 197.5km stage 13 of the 2003 Tour de France.

The four-time Tour champion was attacked from all sides on the grinding, 9.1km climb to the Ax-3 Domaines ski area high in the French Pyrénées, but hung on to finish fourth and retain the maillot jaune by a scant 15 seconds over Bianchi’s Jan Ullrich.

Armstrong admitted that he was fatigued from the efforts in Friday’s individual time trial and tried to limit his losses when Ullrich and Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia attacked him in the final 2km.

“It was a difficult day,” said Armstrong, who finished fourth, 1:08 behind stage winner Carlos Sastre of CSC. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy after the time trial. It’s impossible to recover in 24 hours after an effort like that. I’m not disappointed. There are still a lot of days left in the Pyrénées and still some chances.”

Ullrich confirmed that he has the legs to attack in the mountains. A day after his dramatic victory in Friday’s time trial, Ullrich battled through the 2003 Tour’s second of three mountaintop finishes and had the strength to attack Armstrong when the Texan faltered with 2km to go.

“I see Jan very strong and now I believe we can take the yellow jersey to Paris,” said Bianchi’s sport director Rudy Pevenage. “Jan is no longer afraid to attack like he was in 2000 and 2001. We hope it stays warm because the heat is good for Jan. Armstrong is always stronger when it gets cold.”

Sastre honors his family with a win

Sastre honors his family with a win

Photo: AFP

I have it in my pocket every day I race, so I remember my baby and don’t take too many risks on the descents
Carlos Sastre

Sastre enjoyed the biggest day of his career, attacking on the Category 1 Port de Pailhères and held on to take the stage victory. In the final meters, Sastre reached into his jersey pocket and pulled out a baby’s pacifier and popped it into his mouth as he crossed the finish line.

“I have it in my pocket every day I race, so I remember my baby and don’t take too many risks on the descents,” said Sastre, who won in 5:16:08. “It was an incredibly hard stage. I’ve come so close to big victories before, but something has always happened and I wouldn’t win. I didn’t want to think about what was happening behind me. I just kept pedaling.”

There were some shake-ups in the overall standings, with Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) moving ahead of Tyler Hamilton (CSC). Sastre moved into ninth overall while Francisco Mancebo (iBanesto.com) fell to eighth.

Early break
Temperatures shot into the mid-90s once again in what’s being remembered as the hottest Tour in decades. Despite the heat and the long day ahead of them, riders wasted no time going on the attack.

After some early moves, 10 riders escaped at 25km. In the break were José Luis Rubiera (U.S. Postal), Alessandro Bertolini and Raffaele Ferrara (both Alessio), Carlos Da Cruz (fdjeux.com), Laurent Brochard and Ludovic Turpin (both Ag2r), Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONCE-Eroski), Markus Zberg (Gerolsteiner), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Rik Verbrugghe (Lotto-Domo) and Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole).

Photo: Graham Watson

The break worked up a maximum gap of 8:40 at 76km and would stay off the front to gobble up the day’s points sprints; the strongest of them remained at the front until the Pailhères appeared beyond the imposing gorges of the Aude River.

The Saeco team moved to the front and helped drive the main bunch while teammate Danilo Di Luca would abandon at the day’s feed zone. Torsten Schmidt (Gerolsteiner) also abandoned and Pietro Caucchioli (Alessio) did not start, leaving 162 riders in the Tour.

Ullrich dropped back to the team car after 100km, evidently for a “call of nature.” Lotto-Domo’s Robbie McEwen crashed with 55km to go without serious injuries.

Up Pailhères
The Tour hit the Cat. 1 Port de Pailhères for the first time and it lived up to its billing as one of the hardest climbs in this year’s Tour.

The 15.2km climb features an average grade of 8 percent, with ramps much steeper than that up harrowing switchbacks. The race approached from the east-facing flanks of the climb up a narrow road barely wide enough for a car to pass.

The road climbed to a windswept, treeless summit with awesome views of the surrounding mountains. Tens of thousands of fans pressed down on the road for one of the most spectacular settings in this year’s Tour.

Spanish rider Manuel Beltran led Postal up the lower flanks of the climb. The lead group was quickly reduced to about 20 favorites, with such riders as David Millar (Cofidis) and David Plaza (Bianchi) falling off the back.

Sastre and Juan Miguel Mercado (ibanesto.com) jumped out of the main group 10km from the top and opened up a gap. It was the winning move for Sastre, who hung on for the win.

“I want to make something special in the Pyrénées,” Sastre said after Friday’s time trial. “It’s the last week of the Tour and a lot of riders will be tired. It’s a good chance to make something happen.”

Up ahead, Rubiera dropped the remnants of the break and worked alone on the first steep switchbacks, about 2:45 ahead of the lead bunch while Sastre and Mercado led the chase. Beltran continued to set the pace with Armstrong and Heras still there for U.S. Postal.

Sastre and Mercado off on the chase

Sastre and Mercado off on the chase

Photo: Graham Watson

About 7.5km from the summit, Rubiera continued to work alone up the grinding climb. With 6km to go, the lead group was reduced to: Beltran, Heras and Armstrong (Postal), Ullrich, (Bianchi), Vinokourov (Telekom), Zubeldia, Iban Mayo and Roberto Laiseka (Euskaltel), Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo), Richard Virenque (Quick Step), Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole), Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner), Hamilton (CSC), Denis Menchov and Francisco Mancebo (both ibanesto.com) and Laurent Dufaux (Alessio).

Beltran did punishing work with Armstrong right on his wheel and Ullrich lurking off the American’s right shoulder. Mayo and Heras had a hard time keeping on the back of the lead group up a twisting series of switchbacks at the climb’s steepest sections.

“The team did great work today,” Armstrong said. “Beltran, Rubiera and Heras all were great. The team’s been superb the entire Tour.”

With about 4km from the giant climb’s summit, Dufaux attacked out of the main group. Moments later, Mayo shot off the front and Armstrong was forced to chase him. The accelerations put Heras in more trouble off the back. Mayo attacked again, forcing Armstrong to respond. Ullrich and Vinokourov had no problem hanging on while more riders lost contact off the back, including Virenque.

Sastre and Mercado bridged up to Rubiera and the trio of Spanish riders led the bunch over the top. Dufaux came through 50 seconds back followed by the Armstrong group, which was led by Virenque, 1:40 back.

Up Ax-3 Domaines
The lead trio hit the base of the 9.1km climb to the finish on an average grade of 7.3 percent 40 seconds ahead of Dufaux and 2:20 ahead of the Armstrong group. Sastre made an acceleration and dropped Mercado and Rubiera with 6km to go.

Heras went on a brutal acceleration from the base of the climb and further weeded out the group. Totschnig, Virenque and Mancebo were quickly in trouble.

The main contenders were keeping a wary eye on each other and the steady pace was whittled down to just 10 riders: Armstrong, Heras, Ullrich, Hamilton, Mayo, Zubeldia, Vinokourov, Moreau and Basso, with Virenque hanging off the back.

With about 5km to go, Virenque, Moreau and Hamilton had trouble keeping contract. Hamilton would hang on to finish 10th, 2:34 back and drop to fifth overall, 4:25 back. “I didn’t feel so good, but tomorrow is another day,” Hamilton said before riding to the team hotel.

Next to lose contact was Mayo, the winner at L’Alpe d’Huez, while Rubiera dropped back from the breakaway and began leading the Armstrong group.

With 4km to go, Sastre held strongly to his lead, slowly grinding in the pedals, while Rubiera, Armstrong, Ullrich, Zubeldia, Vinokourov and Basso worked together. Dufaux fell back from his attack and joined the Armstrong group.

Some difficulty for Hamilton

Some difficulty for Hamilton

Photo: Graham Watson

Sastre rolled under the 3km sign and could smell the finish line and found new motivation to keep pushing the pedals. “I struggled so hard in the end. I didn’t want to think what was happening behind me, because many times before I have been caught before reaching the finish line,” said Sastre. “I’ve tried many times and finally I have achieved my goal. I am very satisfied.”

With 3km to go, Zubeldia attacked and only Ullrich could immediately follow. Armstrong had to dig deep and Vinokourov also had trouble matching the acceleration. Ullrich took over the pace at the front of the group while everyone caught their breath.

Ullrich could smell blood and punched the accelerator, dropping a fatigued Armstrong. Fortunately for Armstrong, the final kilometer of the climb was relatively flat and the Texan rode hard to limit the damage.

There’s going to be destruction in the days to come. It’s going to be spectacular.
Richard Virenque

First Vino' went...  then Ullrich charged

First Vino’ went… then Ullrich charged

Photo: Graham Watson

Ullrich came through to finish second and grab the time bonus to trim his margin to Armstrong to just 15 seconds. Armstrong said he felt drained from Friday’s time trial, when he forfeited 1:36 to Ullrich

“At the start, I thought, ‘Uh-oh’ it’s going to be a bad day, but there are [three] more days left in the Pyrénées, and I still have a lot of chances,” Armstrong said. `”I’m not very disappointed. Ullrich looks to be riding great, better and better every day. I’m just going to ride my rhythm and not let him get too far.”

Vinokourov actually lost 10 seconds to Armstrong after trying in vain to attack at the end and remained in third, 1:01 back. Zubeldia rode well to finish third and moved into fourth overall, 4:16 back.

“To be in front of Armstrong and Ullrich says something. I am more conservative than Mayo, but when you go well, you have to attack. I don’t have the podium as a goal, I go day to day, but it’s getting closer,” Zubeldia said. “It’s not normal for me to attack, but I was going well and went for it. Tomorrow will be a day of agony, an epic stage. We saw it before the Tour and it’s very difficult.”

Sunday’s six-climb stage promises more fireworks in what’s sure to be a brutal day in the race. It looks to be a classic duel between Armstrong and Ullrich. “One of the two will crack,” predicted French rider Virenque. “There’s going to be destruction in the days to come. It’s going to be spectacular.”

To see how the stage unfolded, along with commentary by Jonathan Vaughters, just Click here and check back soon for full results, photos and more.

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