Armstrong blows away rivals in Alps

Two faces. One was Lance Armstrong’s, steely but almost serene as he pedalled furiously in the thin mountain air. The other was a mask of pain worn by Jan Ullrich, his German rival trailing farther and farther behind.

Armstrong took a giant step toward a seventh consecutive Tour de France victory with a dominant ride on Tuesday on the first Alpine climb of this year’s race, retaking the overall lead—which he could hold all the way to the finish in Paris on July 24.

At the top of the snaking, crowd-lined final climb to the ski station of Courchevel, the American was beaten to the line by Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde, a 25-year-old who Armstrong says could be the next big thing in cycling after he retires at the end of this Tour.

But the second-place finish was just fine.
Riders Armstrong regards as his main threats, including Ullrich, were way behind, still labouring as he and Valverde clasped hands in the saddle in mutual recognition.

They covered the 177,5km 10th stage in four hours, 50 minutes and 35 seconds. Because of a protest at the start by farmers angry over wolf attacks on their sheep and cows, organisers shortened the race by 15km, beginning it after the town of Froges, near the city of Grenoble.

Mickael Rasmussen crossed the finish line third and Spain’s Francisco Mancebo was fourth, both nine seconds back. Along with Valverde, they were the only riders who managed to stay with Armstrong on the final ascent.

The ride silenced doubts that Armstrong is too old at 33, or too jaded after his record six victories, to win again. If he follows the pattern of previous Tours, he might not relinquish the leader’s yellow jersey that he already wore for five days last week.

“Today, I had good legs,” Armstrong said. “We are in a good position with regard to some of the main rivals, so we’ll have to protect that and that might mean protecting the jersey and hopefully retiring in it. But we’ll see, there’s still a lot of racing to go.”

Overall, Armstrong leads Rasmussen by 38 seconds. While he does not regard himself as a challenger to Armstrong, the Dane has shown himself enough of a threat on climbs—he won the ninth stage with a gutsy solo ride over six ascents—to warrant the American’s attention.

“He’s a damn good climber and we have to watch him now,” Armstrong said.

Italian Ivan Basso, among the challengers dropped by Armstrong on the 22,2km final ascent, was 1:02 behind in fifth place—his overall deficit to Armstrong growing to 2:40.

Ullrich, the 1997 winner and a five-time runner-up, dropped behind about halfway up the climb, grimacing and puffing, when Armstrong’s new Ukrainian teammate Yaroslav Popovych increased the already punishing pace—shaking off a tumble earlier in the stage when he collided with a car from rival Team CSC.

“He really accelerated,” Armstrong said. “That was a sprint. He had a serious crash and came back and didn’t even think about it.”

Ullrich, perhaps feeling the effects of a crash of his own in the ninth stage, struggled to the finish line in 13th place, 2:14 back, his overall deficit to Armstrong growing to 4:02. Ullrich’s teammate, Andreas Kloeden, runner-up last year when Armstrong won his record sixth crown, fell to 4:16 behind overall.

The biggest surprise was the collapse of Alexandre Vinokourov, another Ullrich teammate from Kazakhstan who had been expected to challenge Armstrong seriously but who trailed on Tuesday by 5:18 in 24th place. Vinokourov, third in 2003, is 6:32 back of Armstrong overall.

Armstrong said he expects them to bounce back.

“I don’t think they are finished. I am going to be the last person to write them off,” he said. “They are going to make life difficult and we’ll continue to watch them and continue to respect them.”

Armstrong goes into the hardest Alpine stage, a 173km trek on Wednesday over three famed ascents, with the added benefit of knowing his Discovery Channel teammates are back on their game after a surprise bad day last week. The Discovery riders poured on the pace in the first section of Tuesday’s final ascent, whittling down the field.

“Real champions,” said Armstrong. “I would give the team an A.”—Sapa-AP

AP sports writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report

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