By John Wilcockson
By taking the yellow jersey with another superlative stage win on Saturday, Lance Armstrong has done the hardest part of winning a third consecutive Tour de France. As expected, his only true opposition is Jan Ullrich, now 5:13 behind the American. When asked last night what is still possible, Ullrich threw up his arms and said, “I will try stuff, and my team will try stuff, but Lance is even stronger than he’s been the past two years. I don’t know what we can do.” Then, referring to Sunday’s stage 14, the last day in the mountains, Ullrich said, “Tomorrow is another very tough stage and we’ll try again. Maybe something will happen.”
What that something will be isn’t too clear. Ullrich’s Telekom team threw everything it had into Saturday’s stage. This included putting Alex Vinokourov in the day’s early break, and sending Kevin Livingston on a solo attack with a view to Ullrich bridging up to him. They were classic moves, but the stage still ended the same way as stage 10 to Alpe d’Huez last Tuesday: a mano a mano between the German and the American.
So although Ullrich and his team are much stronger this Tour, they are up against a superior opponent whose own team is getting stronger by the day. On Sunday, this may result in a stalemate between Telekom and Armstrong’s Postal team, and perhaps open the way for one of the Spanish teams. The Euskaltel and iBanesto.com teams have yet to win a stage, and they will be inspired by the thousands of Spanish fans that are expected to be present on Sunday’s course. If that happens, then look for some attacks by men like Inigo Chaurreau and Haimar Zubeldia of Euskaltel, or Francisco Mancebo and Leonardo Piepoli of iBanesto.com.
The course for Sunday is another classic Pyrenees stage, starting with the 12km Col d’Aspin, then the 17km Col du Tourmalet, and ending with the 13.4km climb to Luz-Ardiden. The Tourmalet is the highest mountain pass of this year’s Tour, topping out at 2115 meters (6939 feet). It was first included in the Tour in 1910, and has been scaled most years since. Its final 12km are particularly hard, with an average grade of 9 percent.
From the Tourmalet summit, the riders face a fast, spectacular 20km descent to Luz-St. Sauveur, where the final ascent begins. The last 13.4 kilometers rise 3200 feet, with a series of switchbacks in the second half. It is a stage that would have been appreciated by the late Jacques Goddet, who died last year at age 95 after a famed career as a sports writer and newspaper editor, including a 50-year spell as director of the Tour de France. A monument to Goddet now stands atop the Tourmalet, having been unveiled four weeks ago. Monsieur Goddet much admired athletes like Armstrong and Ullrich, and perhaps they will honor his memory Sunday with another spectacular display.