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The Tour takes a pause – A Rest Day report

The Tour de France collected its breath Tuesday after a string of spectacular stages through the Pyrénées. One more hard stage remains on tap in the mountains Wednesday before a string of rolling stages winding north toward Nantes and Saturday's time trial clash between Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong in the Tour's penultimate stage. Armstrong on the riseThe mood was buoyant at U.S. Postal's team hotel in Pau during Tuesday's rest day. The team went for a 70km training ride and otherwise enjoyed a relaxing day away from the pressures of the Tour. Team spokesman Jogi Mueller said Armstrong

By Andrew Hood

The Tour de France collected its breath Tuesday after a string of spectacular stages through the Pyrénées. One more hard stage remains on tap in the mountains Wednesday before a string of rolling stages winding north toward Nantes and Saturday’s time trial clash between Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong in the Tour’s penultimate stage.

Armstrong on the rise
The mood was buoyant at U.S. Postal’s team hotel in Pau during Tuesday’s rest day. The team went for a 70km training ride and otherwise enjoyed a relaxing day away from the pressures of the Tour.

Team spokesman Jogi Mueller said Armstrong slept well after his spectacular Luz-Ardiden stage win and didn’t show any signs of major injury from his crash in Monday’s stage.

“The team staff checked him out, but he looks great and he’s feeling good after the big ride Monday. He didn’t feel worse overnight, so that’s a good sign because normally if you’re hurt in a crash you feel it the next morning,” Mueller said.

Armstrong, however, cut his left elbow and scuffed up his yellow jersey when he slammed to the ground. “I’m going to have to nurse my injuries from the crash,” Armstrong told Reuters. “My hip is all locked up and I can barely walk so I’m going to have to put ice on it.”

Armstrong dodged another bullet in Monday’s stage when inspections of his bike revealed that the right chainstay was damaged when Armstrong’s handlebars tangled with a fan’s musette bag and pulled him down.

Armstrong is quietly confident the worst is behind him and enters the final five days of the Tour holding a 1:07 lead over second-place Jan Ullrich. “The Tour is never over until the final lap on the Champs-Elysées,” Armstrong insisted. “But I’ve always done well in the final time trial.”

Heras in for check-up
U.S. Postal’s Roberto Heras was taken to a French hospital Tuesday for X-rays and an examination to determine what’s causing the former Vuelta a España champion to have breathing difficulties.

Bronchitis has been ruled out by team doctors, but X-rays didn’t immediately reveal what’s ailing Armstrong’s key helper in the mountain stages. Heras was out of the picture in Monday’s critical climbing finish to Luz-Ardiden and finished 120th in the last group at 34:44.

“We still don’t know what the problem is,” Mueller said. “He’s not in great shape and he’s having problems breathing uphill.”

Ullrich vows to keep fighting
The 29-year-old Ullrich is as close as he’s been to winning the Tour at this point of the race since his breakthrough victory in 1997. Ullrich said in a press conference Tuesday he vows to keep fighting all the way to Paris.

“To sum it up, Lance Armstrong should win the Tour and I could win,” Ullrich said. “Everything is possible and I’m still very motivated about going for the final victory. I will do everything I can to attack him because the time difference between us is so small.”

Ullrich forfeited valuable time to Armstrong in Monday’s epic stage to Luz-Ardiden and is now the only rider standing between Armstrong and a record-tying fifth Tour victory.

“In the past, when Armstrong did his thing in the mountains, I would lose two minutes. I only lost one minute this time. So that’s not too negative,” Ullrich said.

Ullrich defended his decision to attack Armstrong coming up the Tourmalet in Monday’s stage. Armstrong later attacked Ullrich to widen his lead to 1:07 over the German.

“I wanted to shock him. I think it was a good psychological move. I wanted to hamper his confidence,” said Ullrich, who admitted he didn’t have the spring in his legs to chase the Texan on the final climb. “I could not go any faster. I knew Lance would attack (Monday) but I could not follow him when he did. I just climbed at my own pace, trying to limit the damage. I’m not an explosive climber like he is. I need a steady pace.”

Ullrich also criticized Euskaltel rider Iban Mayo, who shot ahead of him to snatch second-place and grab the 12-second time bonus that goes with it. Mayo and Euskaltel teammate Haimar Zubeldia, Fassa Bortolo’s Ivan Basso and Crédit Agricole’s Christophe Moreau largely sat on Ullrich’s wheel for the final 6km, but Mayo still sprinted for the time bonus.

“I don’t understand the actions of Mayo to sprint for second place. What does he need the time bonus for? This gesture is not very sporting because I was doing all the work on the climb without receiving relief from anyone and later he attacked me,” Ullrich said. “At least Zubeldia was a gentleman.”

Ullrich missed last year’s Tour after undergoing two knee surgeries and later received a six-month racing ban for testing positive for the party drug Ecstasy. His team Bianchi was hastily arranged just weeks before the Tour and Ullrich said he suffered a crisis following the team trial stage.

“I was in a real bad way after the team time trial. I nearly gave up,” Ullrich said. “Everybody thought we were a makeshift team. People said the same thing about my Telekom team in 1997 when I won, but I’m happy with the team.”

Ullrich will have more chance to attack Armstrong in Wednesday’s final climb stage, with two difficult mountains coming midway through the course before a long 80km of rolling flats into Bayonne.

But his best hope seems to be toppling Armstrong in Saturday’s 49km time trial between Pornic and Nantes. Following his big win over Armstrong in the Tour’s first time trial at Cap’Découverte, Ullrich sounds optimistic.

“Don’t forget that in 1989 I was watching the Tour on television and the race was won in a time trial on the last day,” said Ullrich, referring to Greg LeMond’s come-from-behind win over Laurent Fignon.

Vinokourov concedes defeat, supports Ullrich
Telekom’s Alex Vinokourov saw his chances of overall victory slip away in Monday’s grueling stage. The Kazakh has been on the attack since the Tour started, but admitted he paid for his efforts up Luz-Ardiden, when he fell from 18 seconds back to 2:45.

“The last climb was very hard, but it was even worse on the Tourmalet,” said Vinokourov, who lost contact with the leaders over the classic col. “I’m paying for my efforts so far in the Tour. Everybody can have a bad day and it’s not so terrible.”

Vinokourov vowed to attack again in Wednesday’s climbing stage.

“I’m not desperate and I will try to keep attacking like I’ve done since the start,” said Vinokourov, who said now he hopes former teammate Ullrich can win. “I wish good luck to Jan, who is a very close friend of mine. He’s very strong right now and probably at his best ever. As for Armstrong, he’s not too far from his best either.”

Green jersey battle moves center-stage
After taking a back seat through the Pyrénées, the battle for the green points jersey will move center-stage in the homestretch to Paris. While Crédit Agricole’s Thor Hushovd remains within striking distance, it looks it’ll be a showdown between two Aussies: Baden Cooke (fdjeux.com), who has led the competition since stage 7, and defending champion Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo).

The pair is separated by just 8 points and the fight for the mid-race points sprints and finish line sprints will be one of the Tour’s main storylines in its closing days.

“I feel pretty good after getting through the Pyrénées,” said McEwen, who’s yet to win a stage this year. “I’m ready for what lies ahead. My crash (in stage 13) was a bit of a scare because I fell hard right at the same place I injured myself in my other crash (in stage 7), but it’s healing up okay.”

Cooke, meanwhile, is the only rider who managed to win a sprint stage in the Tour’s first week that was hogged by Italian Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo), who won four times before skipping out of the Tour at the first stretch of steep roads.

“Having the green jersey has given me a lot of confidence,” Cooke said. “I know from last year I can finish the Tour stronger than other riders. It will be close with Robbie, but I’ve come through the mountains okay. It’s not as though I haven’t been thinking about what lies ahead with the green jersey on my back to look at every day.”

1. Baden Cooke, Fdjeux.com – 156 points
2. Robbie McEwen, Lotto-Domo – 148
3. Thor Hushovd, Credit Agricole – 134
4. Erik Zabel, Telekom – 126
5. Stuart O’Grady, Credit Agricole – 122

CSC leads team competition
Team CSC leads the team competition going into the Tour’s final five days of racing and is among just five squads that have their entire nine-man rosters intact. Other teams with complete lineups are U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, ibanesto.com, Quick Step-Davitamon and Brioches La Boulangère.

The team competition is scored on the combined times of the top three riders from teams in each stage. The winner of the team competition is guaranteed an invitation to next year’s Tour.

1. Team CSC, 194:34:02
2. Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 6:58
3. U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, at 14:08
4. ibanesto.com, at16:43
5. Bianchi, at 59:13

Top riders tested
The leading six riders in the Tour were blood tested in their hotels on Tuesday morning, organizers said. Riders from U.S. Postal, Bianchi, Telekom, Euskaltel and Fassa Bortolo were tested between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. by UCI officials. Tests revealed hematocrit levels to be below the 50-percent legal limit and all were declared “fit” to continue racing.

Euskaltel, ag2r to continue
Two teams currently in the Tour de France have received confirmation from their existing sponsors they will stay in the sport.

Euskaltel-Euskadi announced it will continue sponsoring the distinctive orange-clad Basque team through 2006. The Euskaltel telephone company will boost its support for the team to 3 million euros per year, while the remainder of the team’s 4.7 million euros (about $5 million) per year budget is covered by Basque government institutions as well as subscriptions from some 2900 members of a local Basque foundation.

The big question for the team is whether it can retain the services of rising star Iban Mayo, winner of the Tour of the Basque Country as well as runner-up at the Dauphiné Libéré and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Mayo could be lured away by lucrative offers from foreign teams.

Ag2r, meanwhile, received the good news that the French insurance company will extend its sponsorship through 2005 the same day that the team had the tragic news that team rider Lauri Aus had died in a training accident. Team manager Vincent Lavenu has already re-signed several riders for 2004, including Nicolas Portal, Iñigo Chaurreau and Jan Kirsipuu.