18 seconds separates top-three on GC
By Andrew Hood
Gilberto Simoni and Lance Armstrong ended up in the same camper van after Sunday’s thrilling stage high in the French Pyrénées. The Italian and the American were hidden away inside the innocuous camper van behind the Tour de France winner’s podium moments after crossing the finish line. It’s a place for podium riders to wipe down, change their clothes, and catch their breath after a hard day of racing.
Simoni was there after winning an exciting stage over six punishing climbs, while Armstrong was there after withstanding a dangerous attack by Alex Vinokourov who moved to within 18 seconds of the Texan’s yellow jersey, while Jan Ullrich remained 15 seconds back.
Armstrong and Simoni had been sparring since the spring in a war of words leading up to the Tour de France. But Simoni said there was nothing but pleasantries exchanged between the two riders on Sunday evening.
“Lance congratulated me and I said, ‘I am so surprised I won today,’ and Lance said that’s okay. The only thing that’s important is that I won,” said Simoni.
In Sunday’s high-flying, six-climb stage over the wild French Pyrénées (with a short venture into Spain), Simoni saved his Tour de France while Armstrong lived to fight another day.
Simoni saves face
After Simoni suffered up Saturday’s climbing finish to Ax-3 Domaines in 92nd place more than 25 minutes in arrears, Saeco’s team manager Claudio Corti suggested that the Giro d’Italia champion could go home if he wanted to. But the proud Italian thought otherwise
Simoni stormed into the 2003 Tour with hopes of derailing Armstrong, but sank out of contention in the team time trial. He rode even worse in the Alps, finishing with the gruppetto most days and pushed on only out of pride.
Things were so bad that Armstrong couldn’t resist when a reporter asked what he thought of Simoni, who had egged on the Texan throughout the spring. “They underestimated the Tour de France,” Armstrong said of Simoni and 2002 Vuelta champion Aitor Gonzalez. “Simoni said there are no climbers at the Tour. That’s an insult to every one here.”
Simoni refused to pack it in, however, and worked himself into Sunday’s main move, when 17 riders peeled away from the front just 4km into the 191.5km stage.
Joining Simoni were: Andrea Peron and Jakob Piil (CSC), Paolo Bettini, Michael Rogers and Richard Virenque (Quick Step), Rolf Aldag and Daniele Nardello (Telekom), Christophe Mengin (fjdeux.com), Evgeni Petrov (ibanesto.com), Manuel Beltran (U.S. Postal), Fabrizio Guidi (Bianchi), Mikel Pradera (ONCE-Eroski), Laurent Dufaux (Alessio), Steve Zampieri (Vini Caldirola), Alexandre Botcharov (Ag2r) and Walter Beneteau (La Boulangère).
Beltran was the best positioned rider (13th at 14:57) and actually moved into the “virtual” yellow jersey after the break opened up a 15-minute gap on the summit of the day’s second climb, the Col de la Core, at 67km.
Euskaltel and Bianchi moved to the front to keep a lid on things while the lead group began to thin coming up to the day’s fourth climb, the Cat. 1 Col de Menté. After a short detour into Spain, things heated up coming up the Cat. 1 Col du Portillon at 156km. Dufaux attacked the break and Virenque and Simoni followed.
The trio led over the day’s final climb, the Cat. 1 Col de Peyresourde at 180km. Peron and Beneteau chased into Loudenvielle, with Peron trying a late sneak attack with just 1km to go.
“I wanted to surprise them because I had a lot of speed. But just a few seconds before I was about to pass them, Richard Virenque looked back,” said Peron, who finished fourth. “To win you have to have luck and I wasn’t lucky.”
Coming into the flat finish, Virenque started the sprint but Simoni came ahead of him to grab the win.
“This victory eases the humiliation and suffering I’ve endured during this Tour,” said Simoni, who crossed the line in 5:31:52 at an average speed of 34.622 kph, the slowest of this Tour. “I really wanted to win today even though my form is not very good. I came to the Tour dreaming of wearing the yellow jersey, but to win a stage as hard as this one is a good consolation.”
Vino’ attacks again
Huge crowds lined the twisting ascent of the Peyresourde and they were served up with an epic battle in what’s been a thrilling Tour, start to finish. With the Tour on the line, Armstrong was strong enough to stay with a determined Jan Ullrich (Bianchi) up the twisting climb. Ullrich made some accelerations that further thinned the lead group and American Tyler Hamilton (CSC) was among those who couldn’t match the pace.
“It was a hard stage today. I was behind the wrong guy when Ullrich accelerated. There was a small gap and I just couldn’t get back right away. I thought it would come back together but it didn’t,” said Hamilton, who finished 17th at 4:31.
With 10km to go to the summit, Vinokourov (Telekom) made a daring run for the yellow jersey. The Kazakh has attacked in every mountain stage so far in the 2003 Tour and he won the stage into Gap for his efforts.
Vinokourov bolted off the front and scooped up Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo on the way. The pair skipped ahead on the narrow road, thronged with thousands of crazed fans pressing down from both sides.
Meanwhile, Crédit Agricole’s Christophe Moreau dangled in between the two attackers and the yellow jersey group, which was whittled down to just Armstrong, Ullrich, Euskaltel’s Haimar Zubeldia and Fassa Bortolo’s Ivan Basso.
Armstrong played the patient hand and marked Ullrich instead of chasing Vinokourov, who came across the line sixth, 41 seconds back and trimmed his overall margin to Armstrong to 18 seconds.
Armstrong gets through it
Armstrong came across the line in 12th place, just one spot ahead of Ullrich to retain his hold on the yellow jersey. With Vinokourov’s attack, Armstrong stands 15 seconds ahead of Ullrich and 18 seconds ahead of the Kazakh. No one’s more surprised than Armstrong how this Tour’s gone.
“I knew before the prologue in Paris that it was going to be close. I didn’t expect it to come down to the last decisive stages. This is a bit of a surprise,” said Armstrong, who looked much cooler and collected at the finish line after two hot days.
“Yesterday was very hard after the time-trial effort. I expected to feel better than I did,” he said. “Tomorrow is a very big day. If I can improve overnight, maybe I will try to attack.”
With Armstrong’s back against the wall, many have been quick to pull the curtains down on the Armstrong era. While he still holds the yellow jersey and made it through Sunday’s dangerous stage, some say Armstrong could falter against a surging Ullrich.
|It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say something’s not right.
“It’s obvious I’m not riding as well as I have in years past. I can’t say they’re wrong. I wouldn’t argue with them,” Armstrong said of his detractors. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say something’s not right.”
Armstrong was standing out of the saddle during much of the grinding climb up Peyresourde and said “when you’re lacking, you just got to rough through it.”
“Something’s not going right, but I can’t do anything about it now. All I can do is do my best,” Armstrong said. “If I lose this Tour, I’ll go home, have a cold beer and come back next year. I’m not going to cry and whine about it. I’m just going to do my best.”
Monday’s 159.5km stage 15 has all the ingredients of a classic. The course hits three Cat. 4 climbs early on before the Cat. 1 Col d’Aspin at 94km, the legendary Col du Tourmalet at 124.5km, and then the beyond-category switchback climb up Luz Ardiden.
It’s sure to be a shoot-out. Three riders sit within 18 seconds of each other. Armstrong is chasing a record-tying fifth Tour, Ullrich is desperately searching for Tour redemption after years in the wilderness, and Vinokourov is riding in the name of fallen comrade Andreï Kivilev, who died in a racing accident at Paris-Nice four months ago.
Sitting quietly behind them are Euskaltel’s Zubeldia and Mayo, now fourth and fifth respectively at 4:16 and 4:37 back. Tens of thousands of crazed Basque fans are sure to line the course.
Team manager Julian Gorospe has laid down the gauntlet: “We will attack for everything tomorrow. Not just to win the stage or to finish on the podium, but to take the yellow jersey.”
By the way, just a friendly suggestion, but you might want to call your cable supplier right now if you don’t have OLN already… or show up with coffee and bagels at the house of the one buddy of yours who does. It’s gonna be memorable.
To see how today’s difficult 191.5km stage unfolded, just click here to bring up our Live Update window and then check back for complete results, a full stage report, photos and more.