Armstrong wins one for his team

Postal's Heras clears way as 3-time champ regains yellow jersey in Pyrenees

Tour De France

July 19, 2002|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LA MONGIE, France - When the final dance shapes up in a mountain stage of the Tour de France, everyone expects Lance Armstrong to lead it.

Climbing to this skiing hamlet yesterday under a blindingly bright Pyrenees sky, Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammate Roberto Heras had shaken the rider atop the race standings, team ONCE's Igor Gonzalez Galdeano. Armstrong sat on Heras' wheel, trailed closely by ONCE's Joseba Beloki, seemingly poised to strike.

Instead, Heras whirled into a furious flamenco, cranking up the hill as if he were playing castanets with his feet. Armstrong followed admiringly in his wake as the trio surged past Laurent Jalabert, who had led most of the stage but finished on fumes.

With less than a mile to go, Armstrong dropped back briefly to take Beloki's measure. Then he stabbed his way to the summit, his face drawn tight and sweat gleaming on his arms. His shoulders dipped at the finish as he punched one arm wearily into the air - in first place.

The effort put Armstrong into the yellow jersey he has not worn since the first day, and with the race half over, re-established him as a heavy favorite in his pursuit of a fourth straight Tour victory. He made up 2 minutes, 14 seconds on Gonzalez Galdeano, who dropped to third place. Beloki slid into second, 1:12 behind Armstrong.

It was an important day psychologically for Armstrong, whose dominance was questioned earlier in the week after he lost his first long individual time trial in three years. But the ascent of the eastern shoulder of the Col du Tourmalet was no less significant for Heras, the 2000 Tour of Spain winner who had a subpar Tour de France last year.

"When he stepped up on the pedals and went, I could see he was a different rider than last year," Armstrong said. "I do think he has something to prove. We signed Roberto Heras and asked him to come to this team, because we thought he was a really special talent, and he showed the people today that he really is. ... He sacrificed everything for the team and for me, and I'm very grateful.

"It takes a good team to keep the [yellow] jersey, and I think they're certainly good enough to help me do that. But I still have to ride the bike, as well. I hope I have the legs to stay with them, because they were super."

U.S. Postal Service team director Johan Bruyneel was beaming after the Stage 11 victory, having seen his riders execute their game plan perfectly. Before Heras, George Hincapie - normally more of a flat-stage grinder - and Jose Luis Rubiera had taken turns hauling Armstrong uphill.

Bonnie DeSimone is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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