Thu, Jul 22, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Armstrong looks to increase lead over his toughest rivals

AP , VILLARD-DE-LANS, FRANCE

Lance Armstrong's next ride up his favorite mountain will be even sweeter since he'll be wearing the yellow jersey of the Tour de France.

The Texan cyclist sprinted to another stage win Tuesday, reclaiming the overall race lead and inching closer to a record sixth straight Tour victory. After waiting patiently, Armstrong overtook Thomas Voeckler -- the Frenchman who wore the yellow jersey over 10 days of racing.

Armstrong now leads by 1 minute, 25 seconds over Ivan Basso of Italy. For the third straight mountain stage, Armstrong and Basso finished 1-2 -- with Armstrong winning the last two.

He'll have a chance on Wednesday to widen his lead over Basso during a 9.6-mile time-trial up L'Alpe d'Huez, where Armstrong won a stage in 2001. The 21 rhythm-destroying hairpin bends could signal the end of more distant challengers like Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden and Francisco Mancebo.

"There was still a part of me that wanted to ride a legendary mountain like L'Alpe d'Huez in the yellow jersey," Armstrong said Tuesday after the 15th of the 20-stage Tour de France.

In a four-man, uphill-sprint finish, Armstrong held off Basso, Ullrich and Kloden to win the 18th stage of his career. He proudly slipped on the leader's jersey for the 61st time, which puts him behind just Eddy Merckx of Belgium and Bernard Hinault of France.

When Armstrong mounted the victory podium to loud applause, he pointed to a small group of fans who were yelling "Six-six-six-six" and cheering. Someone held a banner that read: "Way to go Lance, Austin [Texas] loves you."

With five stages remaining, German Kloden is third, 3:22 behind Armstrong. Mancebo of Spain is 5:39 back in fourth. Voeckler dropped to eighth, 9:28 off the pace. He held a similar lead over Armstrong before the race reached the Pyrenees, but the advantage was cut to 22 seconds in two mountain stages.

Armstrong is riding with such confidence that he was unconcerned when Ullrich attacked midway through Tuesday's 112-mile Alpine stage that featured seven climbs between Valreas and Villard-de-Lans.

Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, grabbed a 55-second lead but Armstrong caught up 18.6 miles before the finish.

"Honestly, we really weren't that concerned," said Armstrong, who rides for the US Postal Service team. "In front he can have two minutes. It was not going to be a problem, we knew we'd come back. We knew the course very well."

In this year's Tour, Armstrong has left nothing to chance. He scouted out the mountain stages before the race, dragging his weary teammates on training days that lasted up to eight hours.

That effort is paying off. Armstrong admits he was complacent last year, when in a turmoil-filled race he beat Ullrich by 61 seconds -- his smallest winning margin.

Now Ullrich is in fifth place, 6:54 behind. The powerful German likely needs a mishap from Armstrong -- and others -- to win his second Tour. A five-time runner-up, he finished behind Armstrong in 2000, 2001 and 2003.

Ullrich beat a dehydrated Armstrong by over 1 minutes in last year's first time trial on a scorching hot day around Cap'Decouverte in southern France. Even a better performance would still not be enough to topple Armstrong -- who is now more concerned with Basso.

"I'll have to keep my eye on him," Armstrong said. "I think he is a fantastic talent for the future."

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