Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Lance Armstrong surging ahead in Tour de France

NO MORE SUFFERING Sharp in the prologue, strong in the team time-trial, dominant in the Pyrenees mountains, the Texan has simply shown no weakness

AP , NIMES, FRANCE

The pack rides past the medieval city of Carcassonne shortly after the start of the 14th stage of the Tour de France on Sunday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Just like last year, Lance Armstrong is looking over his shoulder. But this time it's to see how far back his main rivals are, not how close.

Although Frenchman Thomas Voeckler still leads the Tour de France by 22 seconds, other contenders have drifted away. Armstrong and other top riders caught their breath on Sunday, when Aitor Gonzalez of Spain took the victory in the flat 14th stage from Carcassonne to Nimes.

The stage win was Gonzalez's first in three Tours. The main pack was way back when the Spaniard won the 192.5km swing through southern France.

Armstrong, 39th, rolled in 14 minutes, 12 seconds later, alongside Voeckler.

To the likes of Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo, watching Armstrong surging closer to a record-breaking sixth straight Tour win must have been soul destroying these last 15 days.

Sharp in the prologue, strong in the team time-trial, dominant in the Pyrenees mountains, the Texan has simply shown no weakness. Only a mishap or a lapse will likely deprive him of glory in Paris on July 25.

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Armstrong suffered terribly. He fell off his bike twice, and also had technical problems. Blighted by dehydration, a confidence crisis and physical worries, Armstrong used every ounce of fighting spirit to beat Ullrich by 61 seconds.

"Last year I had a lot of problems with my private life," said Armstrong, who divorced from his wife shortly after last year's Tour. "This year, I am, like the team, more relaxed."

He had never been pushed so close.

But this time the powerful Ullrich has been a major flop and sits 6:39 adrift of Armstrong with just six stages remaining. After yesterday's rest day, cyclists head to the Alps.

A Tour winner in 1997, Ullrich was earmarked as Armstrong's biggest rival. He looked confident and muscular after shedding weight.

Beginning badly in the opening day prologue stage, he conceded 15 seconds to Armstrong. On July 7, as the rain thundered down in Arras, he took another blow as the smooth-running US Postal team helped extend Armstrong's lead over him to 55 by clinching the team time-trial.

Not to worry, thought Ullrich's T-Mobile team, our leader will catch up in the Pyrenees.

After several flat stages, and a hilly route through the Massif Central, the gap remained heading into the Pyrenees on Friday.

Ullrich and Mayo -- hampered by a spill early in the Tour -- were expected to attack. They tried and failed.

Only Ivan Basso of Italy managed to match Armstrong's ferocious pace on stages 12 and 13.

Armstrong eased up to allow Basso his first career stage victory in Friday's 197.5km trek from Castelsarrasin to La Mongie.

In Saturday's 205.5km stage from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille, Basso and Armstrong again broke clear. In a sprint to the line, Armstrong took his 17th career stage win to sneak closer behind Voeckler.

Hamilton, his former US Postal teammate, abandoned a Tour for the first time -- severe back pains too much for even this tough fighter.

Mayo wilted in the sun, while Ullrich grimaced -- unable to churn those big gears anymore.

Basso, the Team CSC leader, now emerges as the No. 1 contender.

Asked if Ullrich can still threaten, Armstrong said he'd never write off his rival. But US Postal team manager Johan Bruyneel is emphatic the German's bid is over.

"Six minutes down already so that is a lot," Bruyneel said. "Other rivals are more dangerous. Basso obviously, who is the only rider who can stay with Lance."

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