Sat, Jul 24, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Armstrong just keeps getting stronger

TOUR DE FRANCE So dominant is his current form that the Texan has won the last three stages, all in the Alps, giving him 20-stage wins in his career

AP , LE GRAND BORNARD, FRANCE

Cyclists pass by a lake as they make their way through the Alpes during the 17th stage of the Tour de France, Thursday. The 204.5km long stage leads the cyclists from Bourg-d'Oisans to Le Grand-Bornand.

PHOTO: EPA

So close to making Tour de France history and with a sizeable lead, Lance Armstrong could choose to play it safe.

No chance.

Throwing caution aside, the Texan powered to yet another brilliant stage win Thursday as a record-breaking sixth Tour win inches ever nearer.

In the past, Armstrong says that when in such a commanding position as now, he used to let other riders take a share of the glory. He's a little more selfish now.

"No more gifts this year," Armstrong said. "I've given gifts in the Tour de France before and very rarely has it ever come back to help me."

So dominant is his current form that Armstrong has won the last three stages -- all in the Alps -- taking his career tally to 20. He has triumphed in four of the last six stages, clinching a win and finishing a close second in two Pyrenean mountain trails.

Having survived a brush with defeat in 2003 -- he beat Jan Ullrich by just 61 seconds -- Armstrong seems to have a fresh agenda.

Perhaps more than winning No. 6, the Texan seems to want to crush Ullrich and other rivals into dust. The more he wins, it seems, the more last year appears like a mishap, rather than a sign of dwindling powers some had hoped for.

"This means more to me than any bike race in the world," he said. "I want to win."

Once again he proved too strong Thursday, reeling and passing German Andreas Kloden in a five-way sprint to the line which included Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis.

Armstrong praised teammate Landis, who pulled his boss up the last climb. He called it Landis's supreme effort "probably the best one I've ever seen," adding that he should "dedicate this stage win to him."

Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong, says a major part of the Texan's strength is the loyalty and self-sacrifice he attracts from others.

"Helping someone win five Tours is way bigger than winning one stage yourself," Andreu said. "It's just three weeks out of every year. The rest of the time you have 101 races to do something for yourself."

The glint is back in Armstrong's steely blue eyes. The humor, often missing last year, has also returned.

Reflecting further on Thursday's 17th stage, a 204.5km trek from Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand-Bornand, Armstrong recounted a conversation with Landis moments before they began their descent to the line.

Armstrong: "How bad do you want to win a stage in the Tour de France?"

Landis: "Real bad."

Armstrong: ``How fast can you go downhill?''

Landis: "Real fast. Can I do it?"

Armstrong: "Sure you can do it. Run like you stole something, Floyd."

That's how cool Armstrong is.

With just three days to go until the race glides across the Champs Elysees in Paris, Armstrong's lead is rock-solid. It has grown and grown as if, after dominating four of his five Tour wins, he still feels the need to surpass himself.

Ahead of today's 18th stage, his advantage over second-placed Basso stood at 4 minutes, 9 seconds. Kloden is third, 5:11 back, while 1997 Tour winner Ullrich trails a massive 8:08 behind in fourth.

Ullrich had come into the Tour as the biggest threat. He now faces a big challenge just to step onto the podium. He will need two huge rides and a lapse from Basso and Kloden to carve his own niche in Tour history.

A second-place finish on July 25 would make him a runner-up for the sixth time, equaling the mark set by Belgian rider Lucien Van Impe and Spaniard Federico Bahamontes.

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