Sun, Jul 13, 2003 - Page 23 News List

Armstrong eyes the high ground

AP , LYON, FRANCE

Australian Stuart O'Grady (Credit Agricole/France) followed by Frenchman Anthony Geslin (Brioches La Boulangere/France) rides during the breakaway during the sixth stage of the 90th Tour de France cycling race between Nevers and Lyon, Friday.

PHOTO: AFP

For Lance Armstrong, the fun is just beginning.

While his competitors in the Tour de France dread the mountain stages, which begin Saturday with the first of three alpine climbs, Armstrong anticipates them with a measured amount of glee. Its where the Tour starts getting serious.

Armstrong placed 39th Friday in the sixth stage -- won again by Italy's Alessandro Petacchi -- but the previous week was mainly an awkward case of keeping out of trouble. There were some blips.

Armstrong, by his own admission, ran a moderate prologue last Saturday -- finishing seventh -- and was then lucky not to be seriously hurt in a huge pileup the following day.

However, Armstrong emerged from the sprint stages -- where riders joust for space on harrowingly narrow roads -- in top shape and on track to win a record-tying fifth straight Tour.

The 31-year-old Texan will take to the hills Saturday in good spirits, surrounded by his fiercely loyal and smoothly functioning US Postal Service teammates, and only a breath away from slipping the coveted yellow jersey onto his sleek frame.

Armstrong lies one second behind teammate and overall leader Victor Hugo Pena, with the roles about to be reversed in the seventh stage Saturday: A 230.5km grind from Lyon to the ski resort of Morzine-Avoriaz.

"We're going into the Alps," Pena said. "I'm going to do my job as a teammate to make sure Lance wins his fifth Tour de France."

Before racing Friday, Armstrong described Saturday's climb -- which features ascents of 1,1619m and 1,181m -- as "a medium mountain day, not a monumental day."

Although conceding that "just moving on a mountain is very hard," he, unlike other riders among the 195 remaining, is not perturbed.

Mind game

"Up until now, it's been a psychological game to see where everyone is situated. Starting from tomorrow the real Tour de France begins," US Postal's sporting director Johan Bruyneel said, adding that Armstrong is feeling very confident.

It wouldn't surprise if Armstrong was also thinking ahead to Sunday and the infamous Alpe d'Huez: The second of seven hill stages. It is one of his favored routes. In 2001, he was first up that hill and went on to win the Tour, but last year it did not feature.

Alpe d'Huez features the highest climb of the Tour: a 2,645m trudge up the Col du Galibier.

In total -- excluding minor climbs -- the riders will tackle 24 mountain ascents of over 1,000m.

Eleven of these will be Alpine ascents, with the remaining 13 based in the Pyrenees. Riders will climb an aggregate of 36,628m.

Following that purgatory, smooth roads take the cyclists all the way to the Champs-Elysees, Paris' picturesque main thoroughfare.

On Friday, Italian Petacchi won the 230km trek from Nevers, past Burgundy, and on to Lyon in 5 hours, 8 minutes, 35 seconds. It was the 29-year-old's fourth stage win.

In the final meters to the line, Petacchi blew past second-place finisher, Australian Baden Cooke of FDJeux.com; and third-placed Fabrizio Guidi, an Italian rider for Team Bianchi.

Petacchi secured the green jersey as the fastest sprinter.

"I know it's something very special what I'm doing here," said Petacchi, who also won sprints in stages 1, 3 and 5. "It's really historic."

About 10km from the finish, German rider Erik Zabel of Team Telekom and Australian Robbie McEwen of Lotto-Domo bumped into each other and hit the deck. Neither was hurt and both rejoined the race.

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