Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Armstrong takes Pyrenees by storm

TOUR DE FRANCE Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras saw their dreams of dethroning the Texan slip as his blue jersey faded in the distance on an ascent to the La Mongie ski station

AP , LA MONGIE, FRANCE

Jan Ullrich of T-Mobile rides behind Lance Armstrong of US Postal during the 12th stage of the 91st Tour de France between Castelsarrasin and La Mongie, Friday. Italian Ivan Basso of CSC/Den won the stage.

PHOTO: AFP

Lance Armstrong now has his rivals against the ropes.

The five-time Tour de France champion took a big step toward a record sixth crown on Friday with a dominant display of climbing in the Pyrenees that left other contenders dazed.

Even harder climbs await, and if Armstrong's adversaries don't quickly find ways to unsettle him, a place atop the podium and in the record books will await the 32-year-old in Paris on July 25.

Armstrong placed second in Friday's 12th stage just behind Ivan Basso, a 26-year-old Italian who could be a future Tour champion himself. Armstrong was not going flat-out at the end and said he was happy to let Basso win his first stage victory in four Tours.

Ullrich, abandoned in the 12.8km long final ascent, trailed in 20th, a disastrous 2 minutes and 30 seconds behind.

Armstrong insisted that Ullrich, the adversary he most respects, is not out for the count. A second Pyrenean stage Saturday, followed by the Alps and a final time trial next week still offer the German and other rivals chances to make up time.

"Jan's not finished. He starts slow and he's a tough guy who doesn't give up. He might have taken one on the chin today but he always comes back and is strong in the last week," said Armstrong.

Ullrich, his race thrown off by a storm that doused riders as they ascended the first of two climbs, wasn't so sure.

"It was a bad day, I noticed at the first mountain I didn't have good legs and I was cold on the downhill. But I fought until the end," said the 1997 Tour winner and five-time runner-up. "With good weather and good legs, maybe I can come back."

His team manager, Walter Godefroot, added: "I don't know what to say, it's really an uppercut ... We're groggy."

Just 55 seconds behind before Friday's stage, Ullrich now trails Armstrong by 3:37 overall -- a possibly insurmountable margin if he can't find chinks in the Texan's armor. In winning his fifth straight Tour last year, Armstrong beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.

Baking sunshine followed by rain on the 197.5km trek from Castelsarrasin in southwestern France played into Armstrong's hands.

"It was a great day, especially with the weather," he said. "First the heat, then the thunder, then the sun again. For the overall standings it is great."

A burst of speed by Armstrong's teammates did initial damage on the final climb, leaving other riders flailing. Armstrong and Basso were alone over the last 2km, riding together to the line. Armstrong finished in Basso's wheel in the same time and scooped up 12 bonus seconds as runner-up.

"It was a pleasure for me to let him win," said Armstrong. "He was super strong."

Basso said he felt the defending champion has unused reserves of strength.

"Armstrong is the strongest man on this Tour," he said. "I think he's still got gas in his tank."

A cycling commission rejected a request Friday from Tour de France organizers to eject one of Lance Armstrong's teammates and another rider from the race, a cycling official said.

The Council of Professional Cycling was called in to adjudicate a dispute between Tour organizers and the International Cycling Union on whether Pavel Padrnos of Armstrong's US Postal team and Italian Stefano Zanini of Quick Step-Davitamon could continue to race.

"We reject the demand of [Tour] organizers and decide that the racers Zanini and Padrnos will not be excluded from the 2004 Tour de France," CPC President Vittorio Adorni said in a statement.

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