Armstrong to move defence up a gear

Lance Armstrong rarely gets upset. But it was clear ahead of this weekend’s potentially dangerous eighth and ninth stages of the Tour de France that the American doesn’t appreciate too much attention going to his rivals for the yellow jersey.

Armstrong, who took the race lead on Tuesday after David Zabriskie of the CSC team crashed in the team time trial, will go into Saturday’s stage knowing that his Discovery Channel team may have to put in some extra work.

The American team have spent the past few days sitting in the relative comfort zone of a peloton that has been mostly led by the respective teams of Belgian Tom Boonen and Australian Robbie McEwen.

On Friday, the 33-year-old McEwen, who rides for Belgian team Davitamon, drew level with the 24-year-old Boonen, who rides for the rival Belgian team Quick Step.

Both have won two stages in this year’s race, although Boonen is leading the points classification, whose main prize is the green jersey, on 133 points ahead of Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd (122).

McEwen, who has twice won the green jersey, in 2002 and 2004, is third on 96, having picked up 35 points for his win on Friday, which was his seventh Tour de France stage victory overall.

It all happened in the final 50m of a hectic bunch sprint, and it gave the former BMX rider from Brisbane just the opening he needed to get his green-jersey bid back on track.

It gave him a boost after his disqualification from the third stage for headbutting compatriot Stuart O’Grady.

“When we came under the kilometre [to go] flag, it was a gamble going along the right side because I was totally closed in. I let Fred [Rodriguez] go from 500 [metres] and he moved me up to seventh position.

“I couldn’t see a way through, then suddenly everything opened up on the right side.”

It’s no wonder Armstrong doesn’t go anywhere near the front of the peloton when such mayhem is going on.

But the 33-year-old Texan sent out a message to his potential rivals—Jan Ullrich and his T-Mobile teammate Alexandre Vinokourov—ahead of this weekend, where the yellow, and not the green, jersey will come into the spotlight.

“The race is just about to start,” declared Armstrong, who added that he felt relaxed compared with this time last year.

“In terms of pressure it’s nothing compared to last year, so I’m a little relieved I don’t have the pressure of winning the sixth Tour that people said couldn’t be done.”

With the sprinters in the spotlight all week, it’s been a perfect arrangement for Armstrong.

As Quick Step and Davitamon have collaborated to chase down breakaways before fighting it out for the stage at the end, Discovery Channel and Armstrong have saved precious energy as they have no sprinters.

Armstrong remains wary of Vinokourov.

“Vino [Vinokourov] is always aggressive.
He’s always ready to attack,” said Armstrong, who has an overall lead of one minute and two seconds on the Kazakh rider. “He’s a great rider, and he’s especially motivated for this Tour.”

Vinokourov, who finished third on the Tour de France in 2003 but was absent through injury last year, could upstage his German teammate Ullrich if the 1997 winner fails to shine in the high mountains.

He is known for his never-say-die attitude, which he showed a little of on Thursday’s six stage when he attacked in a bid to win but ended up second—and lucky he didn’t come down in a pile-up that claimed a dozen riders.

That move was seen by some as a sign of his determination, but Armstrong was quick to play it down—despite Vinokourov snatching 19 bonus seconds for his runner-up place behind stage winner Lorenzo Bernucci to move up to third overall and close the gap slightly on the American.

“I have to be honest and say there’s been too much made about a move. I don’t think Vino was going for the stage win. I think he was just trying to keep out of trouble,” said Armstrong.

He then conceded: “It’s 19 seconds [in the general classification]. It’s a lot of time, in fact. We’ll have to keep him in check, I guess.”—Sapa-AFP

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