Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Armstrong has tough audience

TOUR DE FRANCEWith four stages left in cycling's showcase event, Lance Armstrong knows some would rather he didn't wear the yellow jersey at the race's end

AP , L'alpe d'huez, France

Overall Tour de France leader Lance Armstrongstrains during the final meters of the 16th stage, a 15.5km individual time trial between Bourg-d'Oisans and L'Alpe d'Huez, in the French Alps, Wednesday. Today's stage is the last ascent in the Alps.

PHOTO: AP

Lance Armstrong doesn't care about the negative reaction he receives. He's more worried about winning a record sixth straight Tour de France title.

Armstrong was booed, spat at and insulted, but the five-time Tour champion shrugged off hostile sections of the crowd packing the road up to L'Alpe d'Huez to win Wednesday's time trial -- moving another step closer to cycling history.

With four stages left in cycling's showcase event, Armstrong knows some would rather he didn't wear the yellow jersey in Paris on July 25.

"That motivates me more than anything," the 32-year-old Armstrong said. "It certainly doesn't work against me. I'm not concerned about them."

Armstrong extended his overall lead in winning the 15.5km clock race in under 40 minutes, a leg marked by hundreds of thousands of fans snaking up the mountainside, standing perilously close to the competitors.

The tense atmosphere, heightened by approximately 7.9km of unfenced roads, reached its peak when some spectators spit at and verbally abused Armstrong.

"It's ugly -- but this is big-time sport," he said. ``People are emotional and excited. It doesn't take away from my desire to win. I think it puts a little fuel on the fire.

"Some people ... their guy goes by and they cheer. They don't spit at them," he added. "Then they give everybody else a hard time. That's not class."

It likely will take more than unruly fan behavior to stop Armstrong.

Today's 17th stage, a 204.5km trail from Le Bourg-d'Oisans to Le Grand-Bornard, is the last ascent in the Alps. It features five climbs, one to Col de la Madeleine at an altitude of 2,000m.

Only a drastic lapse in form by Armstrong would offer those chasing the champion a glimmer of hope.

So far, Armstrong has been peerless in climbs, winning three of the four mountain stages and finishing runner-up once. Only Italy's Ivan Basso has been able to keep up, but Armstrong powered past him Wednesday.

Armstrong's chief rival, Jan Ullrich, the last to beat the Texan in a time trial, was easily beaten, settling for second place 61 seconds back. His best chance now looks to be a spot on the podium. The German has finished runner-up five times in the Tour, including three times behind Armstrong.

In the overall standings, Armstrong has a commanding lead of 3:48 over Basso. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, improved to fourth, but trails by 7:55.

Armstrong seemingly has the Tour all wrapped up, but typically, he is not thinking that way.

"I try not to. I'm real careful about counting to the number six," he said. "I'll do that on the final lap on the Champs-Elysees."

Riding powerfully Wednesday, Armstrong negotiated 21 hairpin turns to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station in 39 minutes, 41 seconds. He overtook Basso en route to victory, despite starting two minutes behind the Team CSC leader.

"Lance was superior," said Basso, who crossed eighth, 2:23 behind. "I hoped to lose less time. I have nothing to reproach myself. I gave my maximum."

It was Armstrong's second consecutive stage victory and the 19th of his career. He also won team time trials with his US Postal Service squad this year and last.

Andreas Kloden is third overall, 5:03 back. He placed third on Wednesday, 1:41 behind Armstrong.

At the bottom of the climb, crowds covered the road, parting at the last second as riders approached. Some fans ran alongside the bicycles, waving flags that came close to catching handlebars or wheels. Others were slow to move aside, forcing riders to swerve.

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