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Armstrong-Ullrich duel may be settled in Pyrénées

The Pyrénées, with its three stages and two finishes at altitude, will be ideal terrain to settle the rivalry between American Lance Armstrong and German Jan Ullrich in the race for Tour de France victory. Coming after two weeks of riding in intense heat, the stages to Bonascre, Loudenvielle-Le Louron and Luz Ardiden could be punishing. Many believed Armstrong, who leads Ullrich by 34 seconds before the 13th stage to the Plateau de Bonascre on Saturday, had been bluffing in the Alps by simply controlling his rivals instead of demolishing them. But his intriguing defeat by Ullrich in

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By Francois Thomazeau, Reuters

The Pyrénées, with its three stages and two finishes at altitude, will be ideal terrain to settle the rivalry between American Lance Armstrong and German Jan Ullrich in the race for Tour de France victory.

Coming after two weeks of riding in intense heat, the stages to Bonascre, Loudenvielle-Le Louron and Luz Ardiden could be punishing.

Many believed Armstrong, who leads Ullrich by 34 seconds before the 13th stage to the Plateau de Bonascre on Saturday, had been bluffing in the Alps by simply controlling his rivals instead of demolishing them.

But his intriguing defeat by Ullrich in Friday’s time trial seems to indicate that the Texan is no longer the undisputed Tour de France number one.

Given Ullrich’s time-trial prowess and the prospect of a second timed test on the Tour’s penultimate day, the Pyrénées could be the American’s last chance to open up a decisive lead.

But Armstrong has reasons to be confident.

In 2001 and last year, Armstrong was more at ease in the Pyrénées than in the Alps, winning stages in St Lary-Soulan, Plateau de Beille and La Mongie.

If the weather gets colder, as often happens unexpectedly around the Spanish border in the summer, the Texan, who hates heat, would be favored even more.

But of course, his rivals also hold the key.

After his stunning win in the Cap Decouverte theme park, Ullrich said: “We’ll see how my legs respond to the first stage in the Pyrénées and then I will have more to tell you about my real chances”.

But Armstrong, by saying the Bianchi rider is now the Tour favorite, seems to want to pass the baton and ask his German rival to control the race in his place.

“It’s not my responsibility to respond to attacks now,” said the Texan, hinting that Ullrich and third-placed Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom) should make it part of their job to chase the climbers if they decided to move.

The Spanish leaders, now more than four minutes behind Armstrong overall, have no option but to attack in their native Pyrénées if they want a podium placing in Paris.

Vinokourov has been so impressive in the Alps and so consistent all season that he looks unlikely to crack in the Pyrénées. Whether he is strong enough to drop Armstrong in the climbs is another matter.

Euskaltel team leader Iban Mayo looks to be the most dangerous rider in the Pyrénées after winning the classic L’Alpe d’Huez stage.

The Basque rider will be at home and has been the most convincing climber in the bunch since the start of the Tour.

But Armstrong’s team director, Johan Bruyneel, made it clear that Mayo would not be given a second chance.

“Now we’re warned about Mayo and if he thinks he’ll have a chance to do it again, he’s wrong,” he warned.

American Tyler Hamilton (CSC), only 2:59 off the pace, was among the riders to taunt the defending champion repeatedly in the Alps despite a broken collarbone and he could try again.

Ullrich could also be tempted to attack in the mountains, something he was unable to do in 2000 and 20001.

“If I’m on a good day, anything’s possible,” he said.

The Bianchi team leader has enjoyed great experiences in the Pyrénées, having won the Spanish Vuelta in 1999 and his first mountain stage in the Tour in Andorra.