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Luz-Ardiden will be big!

Tactics, timing and tenacity should all come into play on Monday at what should be the most gripping stage yet of this astonishing Tour de France. For the past two days in the Pyrénées, Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal-Berry Floor team and Jan Ullrich’s Bianchi team have played a delicate tactical battle in addition to the overt one between the two stars. Each day, Postal has sent a rider off in the stage’s long break (José Luis Rubiera Saturday, Manuel Beltran Sunday), which has allowed Armstrong’s team to follow rather than lead the peloton; on Sunday, Bianchi led for much of the last 100km.

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The closest Tour on record is ready to explode

By John Wilcockson

Tactics, timing and tenacity should all come into play on Monday at what should be the most gripping stage yet of this astonishing Tour de France.

For the past two days in the Pyrénées, Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal-Berry Floor team and Jan Ullrich’s Bianchi team have played a delicate tactical battle in addition to the overt one between the two stars. Each day, Postal has sent a rider off in the stage’s long break (José Luis Rubiera Saturday, Manuel Beltran Sunday), which has allowed Armstrong’s team to follow rather than lead the peloton; on Sunday, Bianchi led for much of the last 100km. Postal will probably try to do the same Monday, perhaps with Floyd Landis or George Hincapie.

Timing is something that Telekom’s Alex Vinokourov has been so skillful at this Tour. On Sunday, his well-timed attack on the Peyresourde gained him more than 40 seconds on Armstrong and Ullrich; and last week he did the same by winning the stage into Gap and with a late attack on the climb to L’Alpe d’Huez. Perhaps he’ll get it right again on Monday.

Tenacity is a quality that all the protagonists have shown in addition to the heroic Tyler Hamilton, whose efforts despite a broken collarbone have helped his CSC team take the lead in the prestigious team competition. He and the others will all have to be tenacious if they want to do well on Monday’s finishing climb to Luz-Ardiden.

The last time that the Tour ended a stage at Luz-Ardiden, in 2001, Armstrong and Ullrich shook hands as they crossed the finish line. The two rivals had ridden together up the last Pyrénéan peak a day after Armstrong had sown up the race at Pla d’Adet.

At this year’s Tour, going into Monday’s stage 15 that ends at Luz-Ardiden, there will be no shaking of hands. The Tour has never been as finely poised as it is right now, with Armstrong, Ullrich and Vinokourov separated by only 18 seconds on GC. Luz-Ardiden, the final mountaintop finish of this Tour, can decide which of the three still has the strength to win this thriller of a Tour.

Stage 15 is not particularly long, less than 160 kilometers, but in the second half of the stage, there’s almost 43 kilometers of climbing through a vertical height of 10,000 feet. First comes the Col d’Aspin (12.3 kilometers at 6.4 percent), then the infamous Col du Tourmalet (17.1 kilometers at 7.4 percent), and finally the climb to the finish at Luz-Ardiden.

Luz-Ardiden is not as famous as L’Alpe d’Huez, but it’s almost identical in stats: 13.4 kilometers at 7.6 percent compared with the Alpe’s 13.8 kilometers at 7.9 percent. Looking back a week to the alpine stage that finished on the Alpe, Vinokourov finished in second place that day, 27 seconds ahead of third-placed Armstrong, while Ullrich was 13th, 1:24 behind the American.

The fight between these three should be magnificent, but they will also have to keep an eye on the two Basque riders, Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo of Euskaltel. Admittedly, they are respectively 4:16 and 4:37 behind Armstrong on overall time, but they will be inspired by the presence of tens of thousands of their orange-T-shirted fans to not only win the stage, but also to shoot for the yellow jersey.

Luz-Ardiden has been included only six times in Tour history, but it’s already left its mark — starting in 1985. Going into the stage that year, Bernard Hinault, who like Armstrong today, had been in the yellow jersey for more than a week and was attempting to win his fifth Tour. But Hinault was looking beatable after crashing at St. Etienne and breaking a cheekbone.

On the Tourmalet climb, the French star was unable to follow an attack by Irishman Stephen Roche, but Hinault’s young American teammate Greg LeMond did. LeMond felt he had the strength to beat Roche, and could have perhaps won the Tour that day; but he was told to back off, much to his annoyance. And Hinault duly took his fifth Tour victory.

Five years later, in seeking his third Tour victory, LeMond found redemption on this same trio of climbs. The race leader Claudio Chiappucci of Italy attacked on the Aspin, taking everyone by surprise, but LeMond waited for his moment and put in a tremendous attack on Luz-Ardiden to leave the Italian gasping. Only one rider could follow LeMond that day, a certain Miguel Induráin, who sat on his wheel until the final kilometer, where the Spaniard sprinted clear for the stage win.

With the yellow jersey still in play on Monday, Luz-Ardiden is the natural place for Armstrong to repeat LeMond’s feat and stamp his authority on the Tour. And like Sunday’s stage 14, there is again likely to be a free-for-all between the climbers.

In 2001, it was Euskaltel’s Roberto Laiseka who came up with the winning ticket. Perhaps this year it will be one of his teammates, Mayo or Zubeldia. The Basque crowds would love that!