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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
One of Lance Armstrong’s first reactions after a spectacular win in today’s stage 16 time trial up l’Alpe d’Huez was to say it should not have been held on the fabled Alpine mountain. Having been targeted for abuse in the Pyrénées, Armstrong again found it a challenge to ride through the mass of humanity that flocked to the switchback slopes of the Alpe.
Speaking on French television, he said in French: “There was a lot of emotion … a lot of public, a lot of fear for me. For me it was not a good idea to have a time trial on l’Alpe d’Huez.”
Later, while rating his reception at Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees as a greater scare, he said that while the fans on l’Alpe d’Huez posed a less intense fear factor, that was made up for by its the duration.
“Plateau de Beille was scarier than today,” said Armstrong in his press conference after winning the stage in 39:41, beating T-Mobile’s German pair Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden by 1:01 and 1:41 respectively. “But today it was a lot longer. At Plateau de Beille it lasted for one kilometer, while today there was 4-5 kilometers of it.”
“I don’t t know that that is such a good thing for the Tour de France. I don’t think it is safe. I think you’d agree. I’m sure the organizers agree.”
He was correct. Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc admitted to being startled by fans’ behavior on L’Alpe d’Huez on Wednesday, adding that he was shocked by the behavior of some of the estimated 900,000 fans alongside the road. Leblanc said the swarming crowds on the twisting climb frightened him, to say nothing of the riders, who were forced to weave through groups of excited fans who jumped out into the road. “I was scared, too, and I felt relieved when we reached the section with barriers,” Leblanc told Reuters. “Until this morning, everybody thought this time trial was a good idea, and now we realized it was not so. There were lots of aggressive fans surrounding the riders, and I even saw two idiots spit at Lance Armstrong.” “Unfortunately,” he added, “I doubt you can put barriers on the 14 kilometers of the climb.”
Nonetheless, the scare didn’t upset Armstrong’s performance on a day that saw baking sun cook the field as much as the slopes did.
The Texan further extended his overall lead. He now has 3:38 on Italian Ivan Basso (CSC), who finished 8th in the time trial at 2:23, and 5:03 on Klöden. Ullrich has moved up to 4th, at 7:44.
Neither a disappointed Basso nor Ullrich both offered excuses today; as if that were possible in the race of truth where there is no hiding for anyone. But then, with places on the podium up for grabs neither has refused to throw in the towel just yet.
“I normally ride better but for some reason I didn’t feel good,” said Basso, who set off two minutes before Armstrong and was caught by the Texan with less than 4km to go.
“But the Ivan Basso the world saw a few days ago will be back tomorrow,” he warned.
Ullrich, who rode most of the TT using clip-on aero’ bars, was still a winner for courage. He attacked the Alpe hard early and threw everything he had in trying to win.
“I did everything I could,” he said. “I was at my absolute limit. I didn’t even listen to the times because I just focused as hard as I could.”
Armstrong’s ride was certainly solid, especially in the first half of the course, which contained its steepest sections. Some observers felt that he had more in his legs and could have beaten Marco Pantani’s record for the 14km of climbing 37:35, which Armstrong missed by one second.
He said that the latest win — the 19th stage win of his Tour career — didn’t give him the same satisfaction as his Alpe victory in 2001.
“That was a special day,” Armstrong recalled. “It looked like the race was going against us in 2001. Telekom were making the race and were basically saying we were going to dominate the race. There was then a swing and that made it more special.”
Armstrong also played down any suggestion that with such a grip on the Tour he would allow himself to think of the history he is on the verge of writing — that record sixth win.
Asked if he has been tempted to think of it while producing winning rides like today’s, he said: “I try not to. Today I was focussed on getting through the stage safe, getting the win and looking after my general classification. I’m really careful about counting number six. I’ll do that in the final lap on the Champs-Elysées.”
However, Armstrong left everyone else thinking about the sixth Tour win he is about to bag. With tomorrow’s final Alpine stage and then Saturday’s stage 19 time trial at Besançon, the Tour is running out of distance and obstacles to propel anyone else into a winning position.
Even if challenges came, he’d probably match them judging by his ride up the Alpe, which he prepared for in a May training camp by riding up it at least 10 times.
“Although I didn’t think this would be the dominant stage of the Tour I knew it would be important,” he said. “And as much as you ride the mountain it looks totally different when you race on it. The only reference you have are the number of switchbacks.
“I knew that between (switchback) numbers 9 and 8 it was very steep. Every time I was looking for the number. And I knew there were two little villages. So I divided my ride into three parts — up to the first village, then the second and finally to the finish.”
Meanwhile, while Armstrong would not expand on his optimism of winning in Paris, he went to great lengths to explain his appreciation for the French, and invited them to celebrate.
His comments came when asked about his time in France, if it has been a life-learning experience and if he feels Americans have failed to understand French ways.
His answer may help pave the way for a collective party for a historic victory, rather than the occasion for chest-beating by Americans that some perceive his annual victories to be.
Asked about the differences, he said, “Especially today, when there is a misunderstanding between the two countries based on world politics and the respective leaders.
“I have an interesting relationship with this country. It has made my career as a cyclist and everything that it is. If someone asked what is my favourite country besides Texas … America, I would say France.
“I have come to love the country. I have lived in it. I have an interesting relationship with most of them even though you might sometimes not see it.”
Considering he rides so fast, that’s not surprising.
U.S. Postal fell foul of Tour de France officials after an incident involving their team car and a motorcyclist filming the 16th stage time trial here on Wednesday.
Officials acted after witnesses reported the U.S. Postal team car driving dangerously and blocking in a bike filming Armstrong on the mountain run.
One of the passengers sitting in the back of the car is reported to have seized the motorcyclist’s arm.
Tour officials took action, demoting U.S. Postal from the front to the back of the race caravan following the peloton for Thursday’s 17th stage.
To see how today’s stage unfolded, simply open our LIVE UPDATE WINDOW.