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Lastras grabs stage win to St. Maixent-l’École
By Andrew Hood
The 2003 Tour de France is barreling down to a dramatic showdown between Big Jan and Big Tex in Saturday’ decisive time trial, but the Tour’s two strongmen had one more surprise in store during Friday’s 203.5km stage 18 from Bordeaux to St. Maixent-l’École.
Jan Ullrich grabbed back two seconds on a bonus sprint to trim his margin to Lance Armstrong to 1:05 going into Saturday’s duel, and gave notice to the world that the 1997 Tour winner will fight to the very end.
Spain’s Pablo Lastras of ibanesto.com won an emotional stage victory that he dedicated to his recently deceased mother after winning a turbulent sprint from three others who peeled away from a 16-man breakaway late in the day. At 49.938 kph, it was the Tour’s second fastest stage in history.
Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) snatched back the green jersey from compatriot Baden Cooke (fdjeux.com) with all eyes now firmly planted on Saturday’s time trial.
Hot sprint for Jan and Lance, McEwen grabs jersey
Strong tail winds pushed the bunch along at a good clip coming out of Bordeaux. Telekom’s Santiago Botero didn’t take the start and the action was quick to start with riders going on the attack on the gently rolling stage that pushed northward toward Paris.
A move of 34 riders went away at 28km that included Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia and Crédit Agricole’s Christophe Moreau. With top-10 GC riders like that, it was doomed to an early death and fragments of the group were reeled in at 41km.
With the green points jersey on the line, many expected Cooke and McEwen to duke it out at the day’s first intermediate sprint at 50.5km. Defending green points jersey champion McEwen shot off the front of the bunch, but it surged to the right to make room for none other than Ullrich.
The cagey German shot off on the left side of the group and Armstrong was hot on his wheel. The two came together, but then Ullrich surged ahead of Armstrong to grab a four-second second-place bonus and trim his margin on the Texan from 1:07 to 1:05.
Cooke was out of position when the peloton yielded to Ullrich and Armstrong and eventually lost the green jersey he’s held since stage 7. “I was following Robbie coming up the hill and there was a breakaway and just as they came back, Ullrich and Armstrong decided to jump down the left and the bunch swung to the right,” said Cooke
Then at the end, in the field sprint for 17th place, Cooke finished behind McEwen and Erik Zabel. “Robbie jumped through a gap just so big he got through it and my teammate got pushed and actually shut the gate. I had two choices, hit him and fall, or hit the brakes. I hit the brakes. Once I got around him, Robbie had 50 meters on me. I chased but there were only 250 meters and I lost all six points in one go.”
McEwen said although it was important to erase a six-point difference to his compatriot, he still believes the fight for the green jersey will come down to the final sprint in Paris on Sunday.
“I knew what was going on. Even though I lose 30 to 40 minutes to them in the mountains, I’m not going to lose to them in a sprint,” McEwen said. “Whoever wins the final stage on the Champs-Élysées will probably win the green jersey. That’s what it comes down to almost every year.”
Armstrong didn’t seem too worried about losing the time bonus to Ullrich. “It wasn’t a surprise that he did it, but it was a little bit too risky for my taste,” Armstrong said. “I don’t think the Tour de France will be decided by two seconds.”
With 61km gone, a group of 16 riders pulled away for good. In the break were Mikel Pradera (ONCE-Eroski), Daniele Nardello (Telekom), Lastras, Paolo Fornaciari (Saeco), Massimiliano Lelli (Cofidis), Andrea Peron (CSC), Dario Cioni (Fassa Bortolo), Carlos Da Cruz (fdjeux.com), Javier Pascual Llorente (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Davide Bramati and David Canada (both Quick Step-Davitamon), Fabrizio Guidi (Bianchi), Christophe Brandt (Lotto-Domo), Andy Flickinger (ag2r), Thomas Voeckler (La Boulangère) and Vladimir Miholjevic (Alessio).
They quickly built up a huge lead of more than 20 minutes as tail winds pushed them along. With 20km to go, Voeckler was the first to attack the group and the acceleration split the group in half. With 10km to go, Voeckler attacked again with Cañada chasing him down and passing him.
Cañada could smell the finish line, but was caught by three chasers with just 300 meters to go. Da Cruz came by first, but Lastras shot by him in the final meters to grab the win.
“I dedicate this victory to my mother, whose birthday was today but she passed away four months ago,” said Lastras, one of the few Spanish riders to win stages in all three grand tours. “The forces at the end of the stage to chase back were very hard. I felt sick earlier in this Tour, but I felt better the past few days. It’s something special to win a stage at the Tour.”
Time trial battle
The pending duel between Armstrong and Ullrich takes center stage in Saturday’s 49km time trial from Pornic to Nantes. The Tour hangs in the balance and the most exciting Tour in years is coming down to a nail-biting conclusion.
“I am calm and confident,” Armstrong said after safely finishing 45th in the main bunch at 24:05 back. “The course is flat, straight, not technical and there will be a tail wind. It could be one of the fastest time trials in Tour history.”
U.S. Postal has been on a high since Armstrong widened his lead in the epic climbing stage to Luz-Ardiden. Team director Johan Bruyneel said Armstrong’s victory marked the end of his problems in the Tour.
“I think Lance is fine after Luz-Ardiden. Since then we’ve focused on the time trial,” Bruyneel said. “Lance suffered a lot in the head after he had some difficult days. But since Luz-Ardiden he’s like the same old Lance again. He’s joking, laughing, smiling. I’m pretty confident we’ll be fine.”
Over at the Ullrich camp, there’s growing confidence that the 1997 Tour winner can pull off the upset of the decade. Ullrich took out 1:36 on Armstrong at Cap’Découverte and Bianchi’s director Rudy Pevenage believes Ullrich has the strength to do it.
“When Ullrich lost to Armstrong at Mulhouse (in 2001), that was just for prestige. Now we’re talking about serious business,” Pevenage said. “Jan wants to win the Tour de France and he believes he can do it.”
Third place Alex Vinokourov’s position looks solid for the final podium spot, but there’s still a fight below that.
Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton is poised to move up in the overall classification if he can ride strongly. Now sixth overall at 6:37, Hamilton is just 1:10 behind fifth-place Iban Mayo and 1:19 back of fourth-place Haimar Zubeldia.
“I’m going to give it my all. The pain in my shoulder still hurts, but it’s part of my everyday life now. I don’t dwell on it,” said Hamilton, who finished safely in the main bunch Friday.
“My win Wednesday proved I have pretty good legs but I don’t know if I will be able to pass the Spanish riders,” Hamilton said. “Zubeldia was stronger than me in the first time trial and Mayo has been surprising me all season. We’ll see.”
Forecasts for rain and high winds bode ominously for all riders. It’s sure to be a classic climax to what’s been a thrilling Tour start to finish.
Williams acting up
Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams was back at the Tour de France to liven the mood as Armstrong headed into the Tour’s final stretch. “It’s going to be a tight and wonderful race. Once again Lance can be a super hero. Be there! Watch full-contact racing!” Williams said before Friday’s start.
Williams and Armstrong are close friends since the actor visited Armstrong’s Ride for the Roses in 1999. Williams has visited the Tour each year and came to Bordeaux from Canada where he was filming a movie.
“Sometimes I ride with Lance and I hang with him then I realize they’re just warming up,” Williams said. “I love the Tour. It’s a great combination. It’s like NASCAR racing, downhill skiing, marathon running and then you put them on 30 mph. It’s like a telethon. It never ends but real people.”
Armstrong called Williams a “good friend and good supporter of the team.”
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