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Armstrong inches closer to No. 6

It was an Armstrong kinda day.... It’s 35 years ago to the day that American Neil Armstrong took that small step that became a “giant leap for mankind,” becoming the first person to step on the Moon. And on Tuesday, with his 18th stage win in his Tour de France career, Lance Armstrong also took his own giant leap, moving closer to becoming the first man to win six Tours de France. Victory in the 180.5km stage 15 from Valréas to Villard de Lans, which took the Tour into the Alps, was not really needed for Armstrong to claim the yellow leader's jersey. That’s because the overnight race

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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

Armstrong edges Basso for his second stage win and the yellow jersey

Armstrong edges Basso for his second stage win and the yellow jersey

Photo: AFP

It was an Armstrong kinda day….

It’s 35 years ago to the day that American Neil Armstrong took that small step that became a “giant leap for mankind,” becoming the first person to step on the Moon. And on Tuesday, with his 18th stage win in his Tour de France career, Lance Armstrong also took his own giant leap, moving closer to becoming the first man to win six Tours de France.

Victory in the 180.5km stage 15 from Valréas to Villard de Lans, which took the Tour into the Alps, was not really needed for Armstrong to claim the yellow leader’s jersey. That’s because the overnight race leader and French champion Thomas Voeckler (La Boulangère) slipped off the back and surrendered his slim 22-second lead on the Texan long before the exciting finale.

The Posties just keep on rollin'

The Posties just keep on rollin’

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

His 11-day reign in yellow came to an end with him placing 54th, 9:30 back. He is now eighth overall, 9:28 behind Armstrong.

“I am not disappointed,” Voeckler said after the finish. “I knew it would happen, even if I have gotten sort of used to wearing it. It was predicted I would lose it, but even earlier than I did. “

“I can’t complain,” said Voeckler, who will now don the white jersey for the best rider under 25 years old. “I had 10 days in the yellow jersey and I gave everything in this stage, but I just had nothing left in the tank. But Armstrong showed he was the best today. He was attacked, and came back well at the end to win.”

Photo: Graham Watson

Armstrong’s win over Italian Ivan Basso (CSC) and four others breakaways certainly helped stretch his smile.

As he crossed the finish line after a double-fisted punch in the air, Armstrong’s grin was as bright as the hot beaming sun that greeted the riders on the first of three days in the Alps.

And it should have made Armstrong happy, considering it was his second stage victory in four days (including the rest day) and extended his overall lead on second-placed Basso by another eight seconds.

After beating Basso, Germans Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden (both T-Mobile) and American Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) in that order, Armstrong could not hide his joy.

Photo: Graham Watson

“There is something special about winning in a sprint. It is much more intense than being alone,” said Armstrong. “I can’t lie. It’s exciting to take the yellow jersey, whether its number 61 or however many. I still remember when I put on the first one and I was the happiest man in the world, that would have been enough for me to take to the grave. Hopefully I’ll have it for another five days.”

“There is still a part of me that wants to ride up a legendary mountain to l’Alpe d’Huez in the yellow jersey.”

With time bonuses up for grabs in the finish, there’s no question Armstrong was going to consider letting anyone else win either. He wanted the win as much for the 20-second winner’s bonus as he did for what it means.

“The group came back together so then there was the risk of the time bonuses. Sure, you could sit up and get fourth but why give away 20 seconds to your rivals,” he said.

“Johan was screaming in my ear that I had to win because of the time bonuses. Every second counts…. sorry, no pun intended,” he said, laughing at the coincident mention of his most recent autobiography.

In Wednesday’s stage 16 time trial, the 15.5km haul from Bourg d’Oisans to the summit of l’Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong will be the last of 157 riders to start, and he is very happy about that.

The U.S. Postal team leader is rightly still wary of Basso. As a new challenger, he still does not know the Italian’s potential, hence, Armstrong’s appreciation for also being the last to start the time trial, two minutes after Basso.

“I expect him to be strong. He will be tough to beat. A lot of people expect that it won’t be close in the time trial. But he has done a lot of work on the Alpe,” said Armstrong. “I have the good fortune to be starting behind him. I will have his time splits – which is a great advantage.”

The sad consequence of having too much time on your hands in July

The sad consequence of having too much time on your hands in July

Photo: Graham Watson

A battle of attrition
Tuesday’s stage was far more aggressive than most of the peloton had bargained for after the rest day in Nîmes. And the result sheets showed the damage it caused. Behind Armstrong’s group was a field that had been split into at least six groups, with the last rider coming in 35:25 behind him.

After the first two medium-sized climbs of the seven in total French climber Richard Virenque (Quick Step) made his move to chase down precious climbing points just before the 90km mark. The third climb was the first real mountain pass of the day, and organizers this year had doubled the points on offer at the summit.

The Quick Step rider, who took the polka-dot climber’s jersey after winning the 10th stage from Limoges to St Flour, took all 49 points on offer, pursuing his quest for a seventh KoM title.

At the second intermediate sprint, after 115km, Australian Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) took the honors well ahead of his challenger for the green jersey, Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd.

While the pace in the peloton was furious and riders were constantly spit off the back throughout the day, Armstrong appeared relaxed. The only real moments of strain and emotions he revealed came during his finishing sprint, which he began just before the left turn with about 250 meters to go.

Ullrich isn't surrendering

Ullrich isn’t surrendering

Photo: Graham Watson

Indeed, the only challenge Armstrong faced before that was an attack by Ullrich six kilometers up the fourth of seven climbs, the 12km-long Cat. 1 Col de l’Echarasson. But with Ullrich starting the day at 7:01, that attack was as much a threat to anyone else aiming to get onto the podium as Armstrong.

At the time, Armstrong was in a group of about 20 riders that included Basso and had just been stretched by a surge from Ullrich’s T-Mobile team. The group was chasing 10 riders – one being O’Grady who was off in pursuit of points at the second intermediate sprint, followed by nine others who were with O’Grady in the break that formed on the descent of the second climb, the Cat. 3 Cote du Puy St Martin at 40km.

To escape, Ullrich actually rode off from the front of the bunch in which Armstrong had been on the German’s wheel. He caught and passed all but two of the 10 riders in front of him – Virenque and Rasmussen who were leading the race.

Ullrich’s move certainly didn’t rattle Armstrong, especially as he and Basso both had teammates who combined forces to reel in the German. There was Floyd Landis – later dubbed “player of the day” by Armstrong – and José Azevedo working for Armstrong; while Basso had Carlos Sastre and Jens Voigt, who dropped back from the original break when Ullrich made his attack.

“We were not very concerned. I knew the course very well. We did it a month ago at the Dauphiné,” said Armstrong. “Really, there is no descent on that climb. Then there is a Cat. 3 climb (Col de Carri) that is not very steep. It is also easy for two teams to work together, which is what we saw. It was not really a threatening situation. Absolutely no problem.”

Nonetheless, Ullrich persevered and got a maximum of 55 seconds on Armstrong and Basso, before the gap started to come back down after the fifth climb, the Cat. 3 that Armstrong had rightly brushed off as not steep enough to make any impact.

Ullrich was finally caught at 152km, on the approach to the penultimate climb to the summit of the Col de Chalimont at 164km. Up front, Virenque was amassing more climbers’ points to extend his lead in the climbers’ category to 177 points against the 102 of his nearest rival, Armstrong. With those points accrued his mission for the day was over.

With 16km to go, the stage and yellow jersey now hung in the balance. It had already long claimed casualties with Voeckler and Spaniard Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) being dropped, and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) not even starting. But all the final overall contenders were still around Armstrong.

The stage leaders, Virenque and Rasmussen, were brought back with 9.5km to go for the final climb up to Villard de Lans. Just before they were caught Leipheimer made a strong counterattack.

“I felt strong and told my team director that I could win,” the Rabobank team leader said, “But Sastre and Landis were just too strong.”

Also, Voigt, Azevedo and Klöden were all setting fearsome tempos at the front that finally split the group. Klöden’s was the decisive one, as it split the 10-strong group in half to set up the sprint that made it an Armstrong kinda day ….


Resultsare posted


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