Wed, Jul 20, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Armstrong is unstoppable, top rivals say

CYCLING With a lead of nearly three minutes over his closest challenger and less than a week left, the US rider's opponents seem to be resigned to their fate

AP AND DPA , PAU, FRANCE

Lance Armstrong's closest rival says there is no way to stop the American from winning a seventh straight Tour de France title.

Heading into the 16th stage of the Tour de France yesterday, Armstrong held a nearly three-minute lead over his closest challengers, who have less than a week left.

"It's not possible to beat him. I have done all I can," second-placed Ivan Basso said Monday as riders rested in Pau.

Basso is 2 minutes, 46 seconds behind Armstrong.

With a time trial on the penultimate day -- Armstrong's specialty -- Basso needs to make significant gains in the four stages before that for an improbable comeback.

Basso's Team CSC director, Bjarne Riis, sounded resigned to defeat.

"He [Armstrong] has class, strength and talent. It's not easy to beat someone like that," Riis said.

Yesterday's 180.5km stage from Mourenx to Pau was the last tough mountain route of the Tour, before riders head through the Massif Central area of France on their way to the finish in Paris.

Armstrong's team director, Johan Bruyneel, remained cautious about yesterday's trek, which featured the Col de Marie-Blanque, a category-one climb, and the Col d'Aubisque, a harder ascent which does not have a rating. It rises for 16.5km at a 7 percent gradient.

"It's a difficult stage. The last climb is tough, and pretty far from the finish," Bruyneel said.

"We need to be careful and keep an eye on the team. Everyone can have a bad day. We need to protect Lance and let the race work for us," he said.

The Discovery Channel riders have had two bad days so far on the Tour. However, both times Armstrong did not lose any time to his rivals.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner seen as Armstrong's biggest threat, trails by 5:58 and Alexandre Vinokourov by 9:38.

"I've said it before. I have never considered Vinokourov as a contender to win the Tour," Bruyneel said.

He said that Vinokourov was "an interesting rider" who could be a useful addition to the team once Armstrong steps down.

Bruyneel wanted to recruit Basso after next year's Tour, but has missed out on the chance. Team CSC announced Monday that the Italian has signed a new contract, tying him to Riis until 2009.

"It's a shame, he would have been a good leader for our team. He is one of the best guys, especially what he is showing now. He will probably finish on the podium, that says a lot about him," Bruyneel said.

After the sprint from Pau to Revel, there are two moderate mountain stages with no ascent tougher than a category two. Then, the day before Armstrong reaches the Champs-Elysees comes a 55.5km time trial in Saint-Etienne.

Having placed second behind fellow American David Zabriskie on the opening day's time trial -- and without an individual stage win all year -- it could be the ideal chance for Armstrong to crush his rivals one more time before sipping Champagne on Paris' famed avenue.

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