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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
Had it not been so true, the outcome of the first mountain stage of the 2004 Tour de France could have been scripted in Hollywood. But the reality of it provided Tour followers with a welcome reminder of how results alone don’t always count in a race – sometimes, it’s how those results are achieved, and what they really mean.
Friday’s stage-12 win by Ivan Basso (CSC) over defending Tour champion Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service-Berry Floor) confirmed the Italian’s status as a true contender, a man who could take command of the Tour de France should the Texan either retire or lose his strength.
But judging by Armstrong’s performance today, that day seems a long way off.
Much more meaningful and touching was the story behind the image of the two long-time friends driving toward the finishing straight of the 164km stage from Castelsarrasin to the summit of La Mongie in the Pyrénées.
The 27-year-old Basso crossed just ahead of the five-time Tour champion after 5:03:58 of racing and dedicated his win to his mother, who is hospitalized and suffering from cancer, reportedly in serious condition. The 32-year-old Armstrong, himself a cancer survivor, said afterward that he and the younger Italian have spent considerable time during this Tour discussing how best to help his mother’s fight.
For what one day may be remembered as a passing of the baton from one Tour champion to another, their bond at such a poignant moment could not have been tighter.
While he admitted to letting his friend take the stage, Armstrong, who made the decisive attack that Basso followed with 4km to go on the 12.5km climb to the finish, said, “Ivan deserved it.”
“Perhaps I pulled more, but he is in super form,” Armstrong continued. “He is a hell of a good guy. It is a bit of a long story right now with his mother, with what is going on with her. Ivan and I have been friends for a long time. So now, off the bike, we are working a little bit with his mom’s situation and trying to see if she can win her fight against cancer.
“It was pretty special for me to be out there with him. In the last week, we don’t talk about the race, but about his mom. It was a pleasure for me to let him win.”
And for more than one reason, too. Armstrong may have lost the battle today, but he is one stage closer to winning the war, after many a rival for the overall victory – among them Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) and Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) – fell further behind under the pressure of the dominant U.S. Postal squad, bent on a sixth consecutive Tour for its captain.
Rivals to the rear
When Basso and Armstrong crossed the finish at the summit of La Mongie, the rider closest to them was Germany’s Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile), at 20 seconds back. Behind the top three, the peloton was strung out to nearly a half-hour back, and trimmed to 166 riders.
More important for Armstrong, his key opponent Ullrich finished 20th, 2:30 back in a group of eight riders, and now sits 16th overall at 9:01. Hamilton crossed 34th at 3:27 and will tackle day two in the Pyrénées placed 20th overall at 9:46.
The Texan, meanwhile, will start Saturday’s 205.5km stage 13, from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille in the Pyrénées, in second place overall, 5:24 behind the gutsy French race leader Thomas Voeckler (Brioches la Boulangere), who held onto his yellow jersey after finishing 41st at La Mongie, almost four minutes down.
Armstrong is typically – and wisely – hesitant to say that a sixth Tour is in the bag. And despite Ullrich’s surprisingly poor performance on Friday, of all his challengers – apart from Basso, lying sixth overall at 6:33 – the defending champion remains wary of the German, who won the Tour in 1997 and has five times finished second, three times to Armstrong.
While he admitted to being “pretty surprised” at Ullrich’s performance on Friday, Armstrong added: “Jan is not finished. He is a tough guy. He always starts slow. He might have taken one on the chin, but he always comes back in the last week.”
As for Ullrich and Hamilton, both were far from throwing in the towel.
“It was a very bad day for me. I had very bad legs,” said Ullrich who, like many riders, suffered on the descent of the Cat. 1 Col d’Aspin. “I felt on the descent of the Aspin that my legs weren’t good. Still, we now have a joker in the pack in Klöden (fifth overall at 6:33). I have always said I will ride for the strongest person, whoever that is.”
Hamilton, for his part, said there were “no excuses” for his poor race.
“I didn’t have good legs today,” he said. “Between the rain and cold and pain in my back, I felt empty. It is a big disappointment for the team, but I am still optimistic.”
A tough climb, and a tougher team
Basso may be a friend to Armstrong, but the American doesn’t much care for La Mongie, despite having won a stage here in 2002.
“I don’t have a great relationship with this mountain,” he said. “I always suffer. I felt good most of the day. But I was dropped on the descent of the Aspin because it was so crazy.”
Happily, he had other friends, wearing the blue-red-and-white of the U.S. Postal team. The Posties’ tempo at the front of the peloton on the final climb disintegrated the group into shreds, with Ullrich and Hamilton two of the principal casualties.
It was on the 12.3km Col d’Aspin, which began at 160km, that the Posties took control, riding at the front after Quick Step sat up from a spell up front. Their brisk tempo began tiring the bunch out before the inevitable explosion up the slopes to La Mongie and the finish.
Making the stage even harder was a storm that approached from the southeast and struck as the race passed the Aspin summit. The sight of thick black clouds and flashes of lightning, punctuated by the roll of thunder, heralded a harrowing day’s end in the saddle for an exhausted peloton.
Still, it didn’t stop a few brave souls from trying for an upset on the Col d’Aspin. After 5km Italian Filipo Simeoni (Domina Vacanze) attacked, and was soon joined by Frenchmen Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole) and Richard Virenque (Quick Step). But the trio stayed away for only a single kilometer before being caught. Then Denmark’s Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) set off on a solo escapade that lasted until 6.5km to go on the next and final climb to La Mongie, a bid for escape that was brought to an end by the tiring and diminishing Postal-led peloton.
That the remaining riders in front were Armstrong and Basso was a sign that the Tour, most likely, would be fought out between them.
“Christ, the Postals are strong,” said Australian Michael Rogers (Quick Step), who finished 22nd and in Ullrich’s group. He was still with the Postal-led group as it caught Rasmussen, and said afterward: “When they hit the gas, there is nothing you can do. You can see it coming; they all fall into place before the climb.”
Armstrong knew as much. “We had the best team in the race from the beginning. We dominated the (stage 3) team time trial, which proved we are the strongest team. Today we started with confidence, with the intention of winning the stage. It is just a question of whether or not the leader is ready.”
Armstrong will most likely be ready for Plateau de Beille, which offers a menu of six climbs before the final 16km ascent up the hors categorie climb to the finish.
“Two years ago we did this exact order,” Armstrong said. “We did La Mongie and then the stage to Plateau de Beille. At La Mongie I was not super and felt much better on Plateau de Beille.”
Saturday’s race “is a different type of stage,” he added. “When you do five or six climbs up steep mountains like Portet d’Aspet and Latrape and these crazy things, and then a 16km climb at 7 or 8 percent to the finish, that’s tough.”
To see how today’s 197km stage unfolded, simply open our LIVE UPDATE WINDOW.