Time after time, Armstrong still in front

With few stages left, clock ticks away on challengers

Tour De France

July 26, 2002|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CLUSES, France - He won't say it, but he doesn't have to.

Lance Armstrong essentially clinched his fourth Tour de France a week ago in the Pyrenees, following the template he has traced in previous Tours with explosive back-to-back climbing clinics on La Mongie and Plateau de Beille, stages 11 and 12.

Armstrong, whose advantage over Spain's Joseba Beloki was 2 minutes, 28 seconds after Plateau de Beille, has more than doubled it since then to 5 minutes, 6 seconds and has only to stay upright to win this steppingstone of a 2002 Tour.

If he isn't tripped up before Sunday's laps on the Champs-Elysees, the 30-year-old Texan and testicular cancer survivor will join four other men who have won at least four Tours. As befits an athlete whose story always has been illuminated by unusual drama, Armstrong would bid for his record-tying fifth Tour title next year during the centennial edition of the race, slated to begin and end in Paris.

Dario Frigo, the Italian Tacconi team rider whose baby face was slightly sullied in last year's Tour of Italy drug scandal, was yesterday's pinup, taking the rolling Stage 17 in the final sprint.

The lone exception was the fearsome Mont Ventoux stage in Provence, a stage Armstrong would have liked to win. He also figures to ride fully loaded in tomorrow's individual time trial in the Beaujolais wine country, having lost the Tour's previous time trial to Colombian Santiago Botero.

Depending on his result tomorrow, Armstrong's final margin may not be far from that of his other three Tour victories, in which the average gap was just under 7 minutes.

Yet, his distance from the field seems wider. In the absence of Germany's Jan Ullrich, a prospective challenge from tandems on two Spanish teams - Beloki and Igor Gonzalez Galdeano of ONCE, Botero and Oscar Sevilla from Kelme - never really materialized despite Armstrong's own efforts to talk it up.

Gonzalez Galdeano did wear the yellow jersey for six days and Botero won two stages. But Beloki, third to Armstrong the past two years, was firmly pinned every time he attempted to arm-wrestle Armstrong in the mountains, and Botero couldn't string together enough good days to constitute a true threat. This week, Sevilla dropped out because of illness.

Bonnie DeSimone is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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