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The Tour has only just begun

When the Tour de France visited L’Alpe d’Huez two years ago, Lance Armstrong destroyed his opposition by a two–minute margin and virtually put his third Tour win on ice. That’s far from the case this year. In Sunday’s spectacular alpine stage, the defending champion was attacked from all quarters and it was the Texan who conceded the two minutes to an explosive Iban Mayo — the 25-year-old Euskaltel-Euskadi rider who already pushed Armstrong to the limit in taking second place at last month’s Dauphiné Libéré. You could say that Armstrong and his U.S. Postal-Berry Floor team were

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Armstrong’s Tour is not quite going as planned

By John Wilcockson

When the Tour de France visited L’Alpe d’Huez two years ago, Lance Armstrong destroyed his opposition by a two–minute margin and virtually put his third Tour win on ice. That’s far from the case this year.

In Sunday’s spectacular alpine stage, the defending champion was attacked from all quarters and it was the Texan who conceded the two minutes to an explosive Iban Mayo — the 25-year-old Euskaltel-Euskadi rider who already pushed Armstrong to the limit in taking second place at last month’s Dauphiné Libéré.

You could say that Armstrong and his U.S. Postal-Berry Floor team were overconfident. But Armstrong now knows that winning his fifth consecutive Tour is going to be a much tougher task than he imagined.

The racing has been hard every day. The flat days at the beginning were run off at near-record speeds. There were crashes that strained nerves and bruised bodies. And the first two days in the mountains have been phenomenally fast, aggressive, and raced in heat-wave temperatures.

Armstrong and his team have a fight on their hands; and it may be one that they won’t be able to control. The American-based squad is programmed to ride a hard tempo up the climbs and through the valleys, with a view to discouraging attacks by Armstrong’s rivals. It is a tactic that has proved itself in his previous four winning Tours; but there were signs Sunday that the team and the tactic are growing weary.

Already on Saturday, a declared challenger, Alex Vinokourov of Telekom, made an impressive attack on the Col de la Ramaz. That move didn’t prove successful, but it was a warning of what to expect on Sunday’s stage finishing at L’Alpe d’Huez.

Armstrong admitted Sunday that his new Spanish team rider Manuel Beltran made a mistake in accelerating too fast at the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez. It put the defending champion’s first lieutenant Roberto Heras into the red zone, and even pushed Armstrong to a climbing speed he wasn’t prepared for. As a result the initial acceleration rebounded on the Postal riders, encouraging the resultant attacks — first from perennial rival Joseba Beloki of ONCE-Eroski and then from Mayo.

Mayo’s attack was similar to that by another Spaniard, Fernando Escartin, back in 1999 that earned Escartin the stage win by two minutes at Piau-Engaly and moved him into second place overall. But by that point in the Tour, Armstrong was already seven minutes ahead on overall time.

Mayo is a much bigger threat. Not only has the aggressive Basque rider moved into third place overall, just 1:10 behind new race leader Armstrong, he is also a great time trialist and won’t conceded much time to the American in the first long time trial next Friday.

Besides Mayo’s winning move 7.3km from the top of L:’Alpe d’Huez, Beloki attacked two more times, while Vinokourov came back to make a similar attack as he did Saturday — only this time it stuck and he took 27 seconds out of Armstrong. Even the injured Tyler Hamilton ignored his broken clavicle to make three attacks that Armstrong was forced to control.

Encouraged by Mayo’s and Vinokourov’s successes, riders like Beloki Hamilton, Francisco Mancebo of ibanesto.com and Ivan Basso of Fassa Bortolo will probably attack on the last alpine stage on Monday. And the Postal boys will again be stretched to the limit.

Monday’s is an unusual mountain stage, with the two longer climbs coming at the start, and two shorter uphills near the end. The second climb, the Col d’Izoard, is one of the Tour’s mythical climbs. It crests just before the 184.5-kilometer stage 9’s halfway point, so a large number of riders will regroup on its long, steep descent. That descent is followed by a snaking road along a deep canyon that gives an opportunity for a breakaway to establish itself.

After the city of Embrun — site of one of the world’s toughest triathlons — stage 9 follows a beautiful road alongside (and across) the Serre-Ponçon lake, the largest reservoir in Europe. Then come the last two uphills: St. Appolinaire, 28.5km from the finish in Gap, averages a steep 7.4 percent for 6.7km, and La Rochette, 8km from the line, has a 6.7-percent grade for 3.9km.

Should a small group escape after the Izoard, as is likely, expect a great battle on the last two climbs, with a solo winner likely to emerge on La Rochette. Perhaps even more significant will be the attacks emerging from the Armstrong group, with riders like Mayo, Vinokourov, Mancebo and Beloki eager to gain some time before Friday’s time trial.

Armstrong won’t lose his yellow jersey on Monday, but he and his team will have to regroup, and plan differently for the Pyrénées. The Alps have seen the virtual elimination of many of his expected rivals, and the ambitions of Jan Ullrich, Gilberto Simoni, Stefano Garzelli David Millar and Santiago Botero now appear limited to stage wins. But with Mayo and company still very much in the picture, the more challenging race that Armstrong wanted seems to becoming a bit too challenging.