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Archive for Monday, July 19, 2004

Alps next test for Armstrong, rivals

Cyclists take it easy Sunday, gear for three grueling days in mountains of France starting Tuesday

July 19, 2004

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— There's a giant obstacle -- the Alps -- in Lance Armstrong's road to victory at the Tour de France.

But judging by his devastating form, this week's peaks may be nothing more than speed bumps as the five-time champion closes in on a record sixth straight crown in Paris next week.

After two torrid days in the Pyrenees, where the 32-year-old Texan demolished rivals and killed doubts that he is past his prime, he and other top riders caught their breath Sunday, letting Aitor Gonzalez of Spain take victory in the flat 14th stage.

Today is a rest day -- a last chance to regroup, treat injuries and prepare physically and mentally for three days in the Alps. They include what promises to be an epic time trial race Wednesday to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station -- where Armstrong won in 2001.

Mindful of the pain that awaits, he and other podium contenders did not give chase when Gonzalez and nine other riders -- all so low in the overall standings that they present no threat -- surged ahead on the 119.6-mile swing through southern France from the medieval fortified city of Carcassonne.

The stage win was Gonzalez's first in three Tours and the first by a Spanish rider this year. The main pack was way back, pedaling at a relatively leisurely pace, when he crossed the line in Nimes.

Armstrong could take the overall lead as early as Tuesday, on the first 112-mile Alpine stage from Valreas to Villard-de-Lans. Its seven climbs include a 7.5-mile-long ascent of the Col de l'Echarasson. Average gradient: a punishing 7.4 percent.

In two days of climbing in the Pyrenees, Armstrong cut Thomas Voeckler's overall lead from more than 9 minutes to 22 seconds. While resilient, the 25-year-old French champion should be easy prey for Armstrong in the Alps.

Armstrong, who was 39th, and Voeckler, 40th, finished in the same time -- 14:12 behind Gonzalez -- so Voeckler got to keep his overall leader's yellow jersey for at least another day.

Italian Ivan Basso, who was 31st, is 1:17 behind Armstrong -- making him the last possible threat. He was the only rider able to stay with Armstrong in the Pyrenees and could be a force in the race against the clock to L'Alpe d'Huez.

But Armstrong should be able to gain ground in a second, flat time trial in Besancon in eastern France on Saturday. Basso has worked in a wind-tunnel to try to improve his time-trial riding, but should not threaten an expert like Armstrong.

At this point, only a crash, an uncharacteristic and precipitous collapse or a miracle ride by another cyclist would seem to stand in the way of victory No. 6.

"Armstrong and his team are very strong," said Spanish rider Francisco Mancebo, fifth overall, 3:06 behind the Texan. "Perhaps things will change in the Alps. We'll know as soon as Tuesday. But for the moment, it's hard to beat him."

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, declared defeat after two disappointing days in the Pyrenees. The German is 6:39 behind Armstrong overall -- all but out of contention for the title.

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