Armstrong cruises, takes control of Tour

In defining time trial, Texan wins 16th stage, extends his lead from 1:25 to 3:48

Tour De France

July 22, 2004|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France - The Tour de France belongs to Lance Armstrong. Again.

Barring an extraordinary collapse, the 32-year-old Texan, who recovered from cancer to find a new focus and commitment to his sport, will win cycling's most celebrated and grueling road race for a record sixth consecutive time.

There are four stages to go, so officially Armstrong will have to wait until Sunday to ride down the Champs Elysees, drinking champagne and savoring the history he has made.

But, amid a caldron of emotion, he all but won the race yesterday in the 16th stage during a 9.63-mile time trial up the L'Alpe d'Huez, the Tour's most famous mountain.

Armstrong won in a time of 39 minutes, 41 seconds, increasing his lead over Ivan Basso, the 26-year-old Italian who is in second place, from 1:25 to 3:48 overall.

More pointed, Armstrong dramatically passed Basso, who had started more than two minutes before him, about a mile before the finish line. Basso looked to his left and appeared shocked as Armstrong charged past.

"I wanted it bad because of the history around this mountain and the importance to the race," Armstrong said. "All in all, it was a very important day. Lots of adrenaline, lots of emotion."

For the first time, race organizers made the grueling climb, with its steep inclines and 21 dizzying switchbacks, an individual race against the clock. Riders knew they needed to cut substantially into Armstrong's overall lead yesterday if they had any chance of eventually catching him, and the crowd seemed to sense the urgency.

A police motorcade tried to clear a path through a mass estimated at 1 million, but that was no more effective than trying to hold off a tidal wave with a hand.

"The crowds were animated," Armstrong said. "Although I enjoyed my day, I still think it's a bad idea to have a time trial on this mountain. It was a little scary, and a lot of German fans were just disgusting."

In a time trial, the riders race by themselves. Without the usual large peloton of cycles taking up space in the road, fans were close enough to yell in a rider's ear - or shake a fist in his face.

Armstrong has been extra cautious for a week, remembering what happened to him last year when the handlebars of his cycle snagged a fan's bag and he was thrown to the ground during a Pyrenees climb.

Jose Luis Rubiera, one of Armstrong's United States Postal teammates, said yesterday's stage was a new experience - for the wrong reasons.

"I never saw this part of the sport before," Rubiera said. "Normally, everybody is supporting everybody else. On this climb, I saw a lot of people say not such good things. It's probably because Lance is the strongest, and maybe they want to see another cyclist win.

"Lance is the best there's ever been and probably people are tired of that, and maybe angry."

Besides Armstrong, four men have won five Tours - Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault; Belgian Merckx; and Spain's Miguel Indurain. Only Armstrong and Indurain won theirs consecutively.

Indurain famously tried for No. 6 and failed suddenly and spectacularly when he hit the mountain stages and lost his legs. "I hit the wall," Indurain had said at the time.

Armstrong has reveled in the mountain stages, where he has won three stages, including the past two. As well, he was part of the U.S. Postal win in the team time trial.

Behind him is Basso, then Andreas Kloden of Germany, 5:03 behind Armstrong, then another German, five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich, who finished the stage 61 seconds behind Armstrong and trails overall by 7:55.

Ullrich, 30, the 1997 Tour champion, made a breakaway attempt during Tuesday's stage that was thwarted by the combined effort of the U.S. Postal and Basso's Danish CSC teams.

That failure may have sparked bad behavior a day later from some German fans, and Armstrong wasn't the only rider to complain.

Robbie McEwen, an Australian, said he had been frightened. Jens Voigt, a German riding for CSC, told several people that he, too, had been taunted and booed by German fans.

Frankie Andreu, a former competitor for a U.S.-based team, said he thought the fan behavior was more out of disappointment about Ullrich's faltering than about Armstrong.

"I don't think it was anti-Lance or anti-Postal," Andreu said.

There are two more stages left in the Alps, including today's ride that includes five hard climbs, plus a final, flat time trial Saturday. And then there is what is almost always a ceremonial ride into Paris on Sunday.

While Basso was saying Armstrong was the strongest rider this year, and Ullrich was left to say he just hoped to make the podium - the top three - this time, Andreu summed up what will happen the rest of the way.

"Lance will coast into Paris," he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Overall standings(through Stage 16)

1. Lance Armstrong, United States, U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, 67 hours, 53 minutes, 24 seconds.

2. Ivan Basso, Italy, Team CSC, 3 minutes, 48 seconds behind.

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