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This time Armstrong edges Basso; Voeckler stays in yellow

It was a stage that was heavily billed to be defininitive in the final outcome of this year's Tour de France. But after Lance Armstrong won the 205.5km 13th leg through the Pyrénées, everyone was left saying it was more like the decisive stage. In a stage that began in Lannemezan and had seven categorized climbs, Armstrong (U.S. Postal-Berry Floor) turned around his second-place finish to Ivan Basso (CSC) in the previous day's stage by outsprinting the impressive young Italian to the summit finish of Plateau de Beille at 5870 feet. In third place behind the pair was Austrian George

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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

Armstrong outkicks Basso at the end

Armstrong outkicks Basso at the end

Photo: AFP

Armstrong gets his first stage this year

Armstrong gets his first stage this year

Photo: Graham Watson

It was a stage that was heavily billed to be defininitive in the final outcome of this year’s Tour de France. But after Lance Armstrong won the 205.5km 13th leg through the Pyrénées, everyone was left saying it was more like the decisive stage.

In a stage that began in Lannemezan and had seven categorized climbs, Armstrong (U.S. Postal-Berry Floor) turned around his second-place finish to Ivan Basso (CSC) in the previous day’s stage by outsprinting the impressive young Italian to the summit finish of Plateau de Beille at 5870 feet.

In third place behind the pair was Austrian George Totschnig (Gerolsteiner) at 1:05, followed by fourth place German Andreas Kloden (T-Mobile) and Spaniard Francisco Mancebo (Illes Baleares) at 1:27.

Meanwhile, Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (Brioches la Boulangere) produced a gutsy ride to place 13th at 4:42 and defend his yellow jersey by just 22 seconds from Armstrong who is now second overall. Basso moved up to third overall, 1:39 back.

Armstrong’s stage win, and the tightening of his grip on what’s beginning to look like a near-certain record sixth victory, was cataclysmic in the way it ended the Tour hopes of so many of his chief competitors.

At times Armstrong had concerns the stage could have ended his own hopes when he and Basso had to ride through a phalanx of mostly Basque – and mostly boozed – fans. Some screamed abuse at Armstrong, others gave him “the finger” and other insulting gestures.

“(With 2km to go) we had just passed a section of people, mostly Basque people who were … err … how should I say? Excited,” recalled Armstrong later. “It was pretty amazing. They were very loud, very aggressive. Not all bad. They were just expecting good things from (Iban) Mayo. But I looked (at Basso), he looked at me. And man, it was unbelievable that we made it through there without getting killed.”

Ullrich lost more ground today

Ullrich lost more ground today

Photo: Graham Watson

At least Armstrong lived to race another day. American Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) were two of the five to abandon and leave a field of 160 riders at the end of the day. Meanwhile, losing massive time were Germany’s Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile), sixth at 2:42; Spaniard Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), 115th at 37:40; and his countryman Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros), 49th at 21:35. Ullrich is now eighth overall at 7:01, while Mayo is 49th at 45:04. Heras is 34th at 27:35.

Ullrich, touted by Armstrong as his strongest threat before the Tour, conceded that victory would not be his once again. “When you are going like this it’s difficult. Of course, I have no chance to win,” he said. “I am very disappointed because I came out this year to win. The Tour is not finished, but it seems Lance is unbeatable again.”

Chavanel and Voight got things rolling early

Chavanel and Voight got things rolling early

Photo: Graham Watson

It took a handful of attacks for the first real break to form. At 26km Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel (La Boulangere) broke free, followed by German Jens Voigt (CSC). And soon after, 1999 world mountain bike champion Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) set off to try to bridge the gap – a chase he would continue after the summit of the Cat 3. Col des Ares at 42.5km and all but the last 400 meters of the 4.4km long Cat2. Col de Portet d’Aspet at 60.5km.

At this point of the stage the casualties were already starting to mount. The stage began with 166 riders after one withdrew – Italian Sergio Marinangelli (Domina Vacanze). Among the final score of five abandons to pack it in by 38km were Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia (Eukaltel-Euskadi) at 19km, Russian Denis Menchov (Illes Baleares) at 28km – both with knee injuries – and Austrian Gerrit Glomser (Saeco) at 38km.

Back pain drove Hamilton out of the Tour

Back pain drove Hamilton out of the Tour

Photo: Graham Watson

Once again, Postal put the big hammer down

Once again, Postal put the big hammer down

Photo: Graham Watson

By the summit of the Col de Portet d’Aspet (64km), the leading trio of Chavanel, Voigt and Rasmussen had 3:30 on the main group led by French King of the Mountains Richard Virenque (Quick Step-Davitamon) and had already lost the yellow jersey, Voeckler, for the first of several times.

But then the descent was just as treacherous to both ambition and safety. One kilometer after the summit, Frenchman Jean-Patrick Nazon (AG2R) crashed heavily after badly negotiating on a corner. He sustained cuts to the knee and stomach. Also going down in the fall was Australian green-jersey wearer Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo), who hit his face, sustaining a black eye and lip and cuts and bruising to the right of his face.

Both finished, in 132nd and 134th at 42:20; but the descent brought an end to the Tour for two more riders. The first was Hamilton at the feed station soon after 79km, due to continuing pain from back injuries sustained in his stage 6 crash. The other and fifth rider to quit the Tour was German Thomas Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), on the next and third ascent, the 14.2km Cat. 1 Col de Core, where the three attackers extended the lead to 5:00 at the summit at 99.5km.

Again, descending appeared to play more of a hand in affairs here, than any attacking rides on the inclines, especially for pre-Tour overall contender Heras), who crashed on a tricky descent and was lucky not to sustain greater injuries than cuts and abrasions.

More drama was not far away, though. The Spanish Dauphiné Libéré champion and one-time Tour favorite Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was already in the throes of what he later labeled as “the hardest day of my life.”

Mayo was dropped on the Cat. 2 Col de Latrape and struggling with his emotions to continue on in the Tour. He passed the summit at 131km 6:40 behind the three stage leaders who were 5:00 ahead of the Armstrong-led group.

What feelings Mayo had for the race all but evaporated one kilometer up the third-to-last climb, the 9km slog to the 146km summit of the Cat. 1 Col d’Agnes, while Chavanel was dropped by Voigt and Rasmussen.

Still nine minutes back on the stage leaders, Mayo suddenly slowed, swerved to the right behind his team car, then stopped by the roadside. His sudden action was a clear sign he wanted to stop there and then. The reaction of team manager Julian Gorospe was equally quick – he jumped out of the car and got Mayo back onto his bike and racing to rejoin the peloton with the help of four teammates.

“I could have never dreamed I would be in this situation. I couldn’t ride, couldn’t do anything. My legs were empty,” explained Mayo later.

“I wanted to go home, but my teammates encouraged me to keep going. This was the hardest day of my life. I am not exaggerating. I feel impotent, but in life you learn more from when you are down than when you are winning. So I am learning a lot.”

While Mayo abided by Gorospe’s order – and his teammates’ encouragement – he coud not have chosen a worse time to consider stopping. The peloton had just kicked it up a gear under the impulse of a U.S. Postal tempo led by Armstrong and four of his teammates at the front of the group.

Strongmen for the Posties on the climb were George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, who repeatedly swapped turns at the front, while many others drifted off and back into hell. The Postal train was typically effective in discarding the pretenders from the contenders, at the same time protecting Armstrong for a final attack.

It was also effective in silencing the one challenge against Armstrong: an attack by Mancebo 2km from the top. “I tried but the Postal Service was like a giant train and you couldn’t escape,”said Mancebo. “I was hoping some others would join. But they were scared after they saw all my efforts.”

At the summit, Rasmussen and Voigt went over the top in that order, followed by Chavanel at 2:00, Virenque at 3:40 and Armstrong’s bunch at 4:40. In the Texan’s group were teammates Hincapie, Landis and Jose Luis Rubiera. Also included among the 18-strong Armstrong group were Ullrich, Basso, Virenque, Mancebo and American Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank). Mayo, meanwhile, crossed at 14:05.

The penultimate ascent, the Cat 3. Porte de Lers was significant for two incidents, the first being another successful chase by Voeckler of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal-led group. The other was Armstrong’s flat tire at 165km.

This decisive stage was all set for its thrilling end at 188km at the foot of the 16km ascent to Plateau de Beille and its 1780-meter summit. Rasmussen and Voigt led by a few minutes over a strengthened 25-strong Armstrong group that was destined to be caught.

Ullrich fights his way up to Plateau de Beille

Ullrich fights his way up to Plateau de Beille

Photo: Graham Watson

Rasmussen’s card was marked, too, and for more than one reason. As the break hung on, the Dane did all the work while Voigt sat on, following the orders of CSC directeur sportif Bjarne Riis. Riis had not forgotten how Rasmussen won stage 6 in the Dauphiné Libéré from Gap to Grenoble. The two were in a break when Basso had a mechanical and Rasmussen continued on; by failing to wait for Basso, the former mountain biker had been unsporting by Riis’s standards and was deserving of a little payback.

“I don’t forget things like that,” said Riis afterward.

The final climb was as brutal as predicted, and even more so, according to some. Armstrong’s group soon caught the two breakaways, while behind Ullrich, among others, soon started having difficulty following. By the time the group was a few kilometers up, it had already been reduced to 11 riders by the tempo set by Jose Azevedo and Rubiera, who stepped in for Hincapie and Landis after the pair had dropped off following their earlier leg- and lung-breaking efforts.

It was with 9km to go that Armstrong, Azevedo and Basso found themselves off the front – or better, with the tired remnants of the group off the back. It wasn’t surprising that Azevedo joined the rest after his work, leaving Armstrong and Basso at 5km to go to provide an encore of their stage 12 two-up finale on the slopes La Mongie.

Azevedo was the last Postie driving the train

Azevedo was the last Postie driving the train

Photo: Graham Watson

Azevedo was the last Postie driving the train

Azevedo was the last Postie driving the train

Photo: Graham Watson

For them, the greatest danger was not each other, but the frenzied mass of mostly Basque fans that they had to ride through to get to the last 2km, where there were barriers to the finish.

But Armstrong was not going to settle for anything less than a stage win this time. And that’s just what he got, outsprinting Basso by launching his final drive from 100 meters out.Results are posted


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