In Alps, Armstrong climbs back into lead

He regains yellow jersey

Valverde takes Stage 10

Tour De France

July 13, 2005|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

COURCHEVEL, France - Lance Armstrong is wearing yellow again and talking as if he wants to keep the famous jersey for good this time.

The Tour de France hit the high Alps yesterday. It is where Armstrong has historically ridden his best, and where he loves to leave his challengers behind - which is exactly what the six-time defending champion did.

Armstrong, 33, hoping to win one final Tour before he retires, finished second in Stage 10 to reclaim first place overall.

He finished less than a wheel behind Alejandro Valverde, a 25-year-old Spaniard tabbed by many as cycling's next charismatic star. Both covered the 110.9-mile ride in 4 hours, 50 minutes and 35 seconds.

Overall, Armstrong leads Denmark's Mickael Rasmussen by 38 seconds. Ivan Basso, last year's third-place finisher, is third again, 2:40 behind. Frenchman Christophe Moreau is fourth, 2:42 behind.

Meanwhile, Armstrong's top challengers, men who had proclaimed themselves ready and eager to take his yellow jersey while the retiring Texan was still racing, have fallen far behind.

Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion and a five-time runner-up, is eighth now, 4:02 behind. His T-Mobile teammate, Andreas Kloeden, who was runner-up last year, is ninth, 4:16 back. Alexandre Vinokourov, a third-place finisher two years ago who was suggesting he should be the T-Mobile team leader, came in 6:32 behind Armstrong and is in 16th place. He had been fifth going into the day.

By the time Armstrong and Valverde roared through the snaking roads of this ski station at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet, the most danger came from uncontrollable fans running into the road and hindering the riders with their flags. Rasmussen shoved one of them aside.

"Today I had good legs," Armstrong said. "We're in a good position now with regard to the main rivals so maybe we'll have to protect that. It might mean protecting the [yellow] jersey and hopefully retiring it. We'll see."

Armstrong certainly seems in shape to keep the jersey from now until the end.

First, he dropped Vinokourov and Bobby Julich, who had been fifth and sixth going into yesterday. At the beginning of the 13.8-mile final climb, Julich, from Glenwood Springs, Colo., and Vinokourov, from Kazakhstan, began riding as if they were carrying logs on their backs.

Ullrich had rivulets of sweat hanging from his lip and looked glassy-eyed while staring at nothing but Armstrong's back. His legs were pumping, but his bike barely moved. Kloeden couldn't raise his head. He just followed Ullrich.

"We were really looking forward to today's stage," Ullrich said. "But it was too much for my legs." Ullrich said his ribs hurt from a crash Sunday. "But it didn't matter," he said. "I would have lost two minutes anyway."

Jens Voigt, who held the yellow jersey at the start of the stage, fell five minutes behind, then 10, 15, 17. ... The more Voigt pedaled, the longer the road seemed to grow. He's now in 72nd place, 29:23 behind Armstrong.

Basso, the Italian from CSC whose team director, Bjarn Riis, had engaged in some gamesmanship over the first week of the Tour de France, was on Armstrong's back for a while. But in the final pull, Basso dropped away, too.

The only men left with Armstrong in the final few kilometers were former mountain bike champion Rasmussen, who won Saturday's stage, and two Spaniards from the Illes Balears team, Valverde and Francisco Mancebo.

Armstrong praised his youngest teammate, 25-year-old Yaroslav Popovych.

Popovych had crashed on a big descent yesterday, but it was Popovych who was the last Discovery Channel rider escorting Armstrong.

The U.S. team led the peloton almost all day. Pavel Padrnos, Manuel Beltran and Benjamin Noval Gonzalez took turns up front before peeling off. Jose Luis Rubiera and Paolo Savoldelli moved up, worked hard and moved back. Jose Azevedo came next, and when he tired George Hincapie jumped up. Finally, only Popovych was left.

With about 12 kilometers left, Armstrong leaned over and spoke to Popovych. "I told him to go hard," Armstrong said. "And he did. Almost too fast. It was almost a sprint."

It was that move that dropped all but six riders, including Armstrong.

"It's not over," Armstrong said yesterday. "Still a long way to go."

It seems very much longer for everybody but Armstrong.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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