By Andrew Hood
The closest race in Tour de France history is close no more.
Lance Armstrong shook off a dramatic crash less than 10km from the finish at Luz-Ardiden when his handlebar hooked a fan’s bag to win his first stage of the 2003 Tour and widen his grip on the yellow jersey to a more comfortable 1:07 over second-placed Jan Ullrich (Bianchi).
The 159.5km stage 15 started with three riders within 18 seconds of each other, the closest-ever margin at this stage of the Tour, but it ended with Armstrong padding his lead. Ullrich took third on the stage, while Alex Vinokourov (Telekom) faltered after unleashing attacks on every other mountain stage and fell to 2:45 back.
These gaps aren’t huge, but they give Armstrong some breathing space heading into the final week of the Tour in what’s been a fitting tribute to the Tour’s centennial.
‘Today’s the day’
Armstrong has been known to step up for cycling’s most dramatic moments, but nothing compared to the anticipation of Monday’s stage. The U.S. Postal team leader has struggled through problems and mishaps since the race began in his quest to win a record-tying fifth Tour.
That goal hung in the balance Monday, but Armstrong delivered one of his most dramatic performances in what’s been without a doubt the most exciting Tour since Greg LeMond defeated Laurent Fignon by eight seconds in 1989.
“I knew this was the most important stage for me and I had to attack to make up some time differences on Jan,” said Armstrong, after winning his 16th career Tour stage victory. “When I crashed, I had a huge rush of adrenaline. I said, ‘Today is the day.'”
Armstrong was sent toppling to the ground just as he was accelerating away from Ullrich and the lead bunch of riders with about 10km to go. Armstrong had just shot by the attacking Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) and drifted to the right side of the road when a fan’s yellow musette hooked the right side of Armstrong’s handlebars.
Gasps went out as the American was thrown hard on his left shoulder. Mayo was right on Armstrong’s wheel and also went down in the pileup.
“It was my fault because I was riding too close to the fans,” Armstrong said. “The bag hooked my handlebar and there wasn’t much I could do.”
Ullrich swerved to his left to miss the downed Armstrong and Mayo, and the race was thrown into chaos as the leading bunch was unsure if Armstrong would continue in the race. Ullrich pedaled on ahead with Tyler Hamilton (CSC), Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) and Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole). Hamilton and Ullrich told the other riders to slow down and wait for Armstrong.
Armstrong scrambled back on his bike and pushed on to catch the others with little more than a scrape on his left shoulder and scuffed-up yellow jersey where he landed on the upper left side of his back and shoulder.
“I’m really grateful for Jan for remembering my gesture of two years ago. What goes around, comes around,” said Armstrong, who waited for Ullrich when he crashed coming down the Col de Peyresourde in the 2001 Tour. “The tables were turned two years ago when I did what I did. I appreciated he did what he did.”
While chasing back to the group with Mayo, Armstrong almost crashed again when his foot slipped from his right pedal.
Over the Tourmalet
Armstrong’s crash occurred just as the 31-year-old Texan was beginning to put down one of his trademark accelerations up one of the Tour’s steepest roads. He had lacked the legs to do it so far this Tour, but it was obvious he had recovered from the crisis he suffered when he over-heated in last Friday’s individual time trial.
Armstrong shook off attacks by Ullrich going up the Tourmalet, when the German pushed the accelerator and left Armstrong dangling off his wheel midway up the 17km-long climb.
“For me, tactically, that was not the time to go,” Armstrong said of Ullrich’s move. “It was better to establish my own rhythm and stay five, 10 seconds behind him, then come back. He was going strong there. If he was going to ride like that all day, he can win the Tour. I cannot ride like that, but I felt it was a little early for that.”
The main bunch fractured over the Tourmalet, with Ullrich, Armstrong, Mayo and Zubeldia topping it a little more than one minute ahead of Hamilton, Basso and Moreau, while Vinokourov was further back. The Kazakhstan rider was being helped by his Colombian teammate Santiago Botero, who had dropped back from an earlier breakaway.
All these riders came back together on the long descent off the Tourmalet, with such riders as Chechu Rubiera and Manuel Beltran of U.S. Postal, and Aitor Garmendia of Bianchi catching back to a group of that was 17 strong as the final climb to Luz-Ardiden began.
Race for the Tour
On regrouping after the Armstrong-Mayo crash, the Basque attacked again, and was countered by Armstrong about 8km from the summit. Then, after catching early breakaway Sylvain Chavanel of La Boulangère inside 5km to go, Armstrong just had the open road to chase a stage victory.
Ullrich was getting no help from behind, as Basso, Mayo and Zubeldia sat on the German’s wheel. Ullrich fought to limit the damage but the race leader remorselessly opened the gap.
Armstrong roared up the road, but he admitted he felt like a desperate man. “I wasn’t angry when I attacked. I was a little desperate. I knew I needed to make up some time to Ullrich before the time trial,” he said.
Armstrong came through to claim his first stage this Tour and poked his bike across the line as if it were a sprint. A soigneur wrapped a towel around him and he was pushed toward the podium. Despite the melodrama, Armstrong said the victory is nothing in terms of emotion compared to 1995 when he won the stage into Limoges just days after his teammate Fabio Casartelli was killed in a racing accident.
“In terms of emotion, I still have to top Limoges in 1995,” he said. “Today was up and down, suspenseful day. Perhaps I am too tired to savor it, but nothing compares to the rush of emotion from Limoges.”
As for Ullrich, he resigned himself to the day’s loss. “It’s only fair that we waited for Armstrong,” he said. “I don’t think I lost any of my rhythm. It was nice to catch my breath. Lance was the strongest today, you have to give him credit. There’s still a time trial left, so the Tour is not over.”
Rodriguez out, early break
The day started with a moment of silence for Lauri Aus, the ag2r racer who was killed Sunday in a training accident near his home in Estonia. Caldirola’s Marco Milesi didn’t start, Axel Merckx (Lotto-Domo) finished outside the time limit and two riders abandoned, American Fred Rodriguez (Vini Caldirola) and Leonardo Bertagnoli (Saeco), leaving 151 riders heading into Tuesday’s rest day. Rodriguez was suffering with a bad stomach even before the Alps.
Monday copied the form from this year’s Tour and there were attacks right off the bat, with 15 riders getting away at 15km into the stage. In the group were: George Hincapie (USPS), Mario Aerts and Botero (Telekom), Salvatore Commesso and Gerrit Glomser (Saeco), Nicolas Vogondy (Fdjeux.com), Javier Pascual Llorente (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Benoît Poilvet (Crédit Agricole), Chavanel (La Boulangère) and Alexandre Botcharov, Iñigo Chaurreau, Christophe Oriol and Nicolas Portal (all ag2r), with the final four riding in honor of their fallen teammate.
The 15 were reeled in at 29km when Chavanel, Botero and Patrice Halgand (Jean Delatour) peeled away on a string of three Cat. 4 climbs that opened the stage. Halgand was dropped before the day’s first points sprint and Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) jumped out to grab the third-place points behind Chavanel and Botero.
Baden Cooke (Fdjeux.com) retained his hold on the green jersey, just eight points ahead of defending champion Robbie McEwen (Lotto) while Hushovd moved into third at 14 points behind McEwen. The fight for the green jersey will be one of the major battles in the Tour’s final week.
Chavanel and Botero hit the base of the Col d’Aspin and topped it together, 5:45 ahead of Chaurreau and 9:10 ahead of the peloton led by Richard Virenque (Quick Step), who retained his hold on the KOM jersey.
Chavanel is France’s rising star and attacked Botero at the base of the Col du Tourmalet, one of the Tour’s legendary climbs. The Tourmalet was the first climb higher than 2000 meters introduced to the Tour and when it was first raced in 1910, racers were afraid of being attacked by bears.
Chavanel had to fight through tens of thousands of crazed Basque fans (and some French ones, too) and won the Souvenir Jacques Goddet for being first over the Tourmalet. Chavanel led Armstrong, Ullrich, Mayo and Zubeldia by 4:02 over the Tourmalet, with Hamilton, Basso and Moreau at 4:35. and Vinokourov and Botero at 5:20.
With that margin, Chavanel had some chances to make it up Luz-Ardiden for the win. He gave it all he had, but was caught by the turbo-charged Armstrong with 4.6km to go. Armstrong tapped Chavanel on his shoulder as he blew past him.
The final week
Armstrong enters the final week of the Tour adamant that the race isn’t over yet. Ullrich took 1:36 out of Armstrong in the first time trial so the Tour could come down to the final 49km time trial at Nantes if things remain the same.
“Like I always say, the Tour is never over until the final lap on the Champs-Elysées,” Armstrong said. “There’s still another week. Jan is a great roller. Anything can happen.”
It’s hard to imagine something happening that hasn’t happened yet in this wild, roller-coaster Tour. Armstrong admits he hopes the melodrama can be put on hold for at least a few days.
“This has been a Tour of too many problems,” he said. “Too many close-calls, too many near-misses. It seems like a lifetime’s worth. I wish I could have some uneventful days.”
Ullrich said he won’t stop fighting for the victory and has the confidence of knowing that he beat Armstrong in the first time trial. If he can repeat that performance in Nantes, Ullrich could move ahead of Armstrong, said Rudy Pevenage, sport director of Bianchi.
“I pushed Jan hard today to stay as close as he could to not lose too much time,” Pevenage said. “This is a different Lance Armstrong than we’ve seen in the past, but Jan was too eager on the Tourmalet, but that’s Jan’s style. With just 1:07, everything is possible. The match is set for Saturday.”
Riders don’t want to overlook Wednesday’s final climbing stage, with two of the hardest climbs in this year’s Tour coming midway through the stage before a long rolling finish into Bayonne.
Armstrong remains quietly confident time is on his side and believes he can pull off his fifth consecutive Tour victory. “I’m a believer of momentum and curves,” he said. “I just wish the problems will stop. I’ve had a lot of strange things happen on this Tour, some things that I haven’t even talked about. It’s been a very odd, crisis-filled Tour.”
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