Sprint dusts rivals, gives Armstrong yellow jersey

At foot of L'Alpe d'Huez, champion leads by 1:25

Tour De France

July 21, 2004|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VILLARD-DE-LANS, France - Lance Armstrong took the yellow jersey in style yesterday, standing up on his pedals and brushing away the best his opponents could offer.

Top rival Jan Ullrich made a daring, last-chance attack that enabled him to break away at one point, but he was pulled back and, in the end, was huffing, puffing and perhaps broken. New star Ivan Basso used a last-second spin move to take the lead, but Armstrong catapulted around him in the last few meters to win the 15th stage of the Tour de France in a breathtaking sprint.

It was a dominating performance by the 33-year-old Texan who is trying to become the Tour's first six-time champion, and it earned him a mountain-shaking roar from the crowd watching the end of the race's first stage in the Alps.

It also gave him the yellow jersey that belongs to the rider holding the overall lead.

Armstrong rode strong and smart. He seemed unperturbed as Ullrich broke away at the bottom of the biggest of the day's seven climbs, patiently staying with his United States Postal teammates even as they fell more than two minutes behind the leader. Then, after his team had helped him track down Ull- rich and haul him back into the pack, Armstrong made his final push.

With about 800 yards left in the 112-mile stage from Valreas, there was a group of five riders at the front - Armstrong, Basso, Ullrich, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer. Kloden tried the first sprint, then Basso took the lead until Armstrong stood hard on his pedals and swooped past him, flying through the final turn.

Armstrong leads the Tour by 1 minute, 25 seconds over Basso and by 3:22 over Germany's Kloden. Ullrich, a five-time Tour runner-up, is 6:54 back, in fifth place behind Spaniard Francisco Mancebo.

"I have to say, it's something very special winning in a sprint," Armstrong said. "To win a stage alone is exciting and fun, but winning in a sprint is much more intense."

Armstrong had worn the yellow jersey only once before in this Tour, after Stage 4's team trial win by U.S. Postal. Unless something unusual or calamitous happens, Armstrong is expected to hold it through today's explosive time trial up L'Alpe d'Huez, the final two stages in the Alps tomorrow and Friday and Saturday's flat time trial in Besancon. The race ends Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

It was estimated last night that already a million people have lined the 9.6-mile route up to L'Alpe d'Huez, a village of 1,500.

Armstrong was excited about what today might bring. He will start last of 158 racers in the time trial, another honor for the wearer of yellow.

"Part of me did want to ride a legendary mountain like L'Alpe d'Huez wearing the yellow jersey," Armstrong said. Armstrong had been asked why he expended such energy at the end to sprint for the stage win when he already knew the maillot jaune was his.

Thomas Voeckler, the French rider for Brioches la Boulangere who had worn that jersey for 12 days, finally lost his legs when Ullrich attacked. At the end, Voeckler crossed the finish line in 54th place, 9:30 behind Armstrong. "I am proud of how I did," Voeckler said. "I did not quit, not once, and now I have learned how to ride this Tour."

Basso said he was going to stay optimistic but also said he thought "Wednesday will be my last chance to take time from Lance."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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