Armstrong widens lead, as longtime teammate wins his 1st stage

Hincapie surprises himself with tough mountain victory

Tour De France

July 18, 2005|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAINT-LARY-SOULAN, France - George Hincapie has ridden with Lance Armstrong through all the Tour de France wins.

He has shepherded Armstrong through heat and cold, windy mountaintops and broiling blacktop. He has ridden first on Armstrong's team or last, always doing what was asked. For six years Hincapie has been the only constant teammate, always in the background as Armstrong broke cycling records and made history.

Yesterday, with the temperature climbing to 96 degrees, with six mountains to climb, with hundreds of thousands of Basque fans swarming the roads wearing bright orange shirts and howling for any Spaniard in the race, Hincapie created the greatest day of his cycling career.

Outsprinting Spain's Oscar Pereiro in the final 250 meters, Hincapie won his first stage at the Tour and became the eighth American to win a non-team time trial stage. Hincapie, 32, finished the 127.7-mile ride in the Pyrenees in 6 hours, 6 minutes, 38 seconds.

"It wasn't planned," Hincapie said. "All I wanted to do was set the pace for Lance. I'm in disbelief."

Hincapie and Pereiro had to forge a trail through the hordes of fans that covered the narrow road.

Armstrong, who began the day leading by 1:41, and Italy's Ivan Basso finished together, 5:04 behind Hincapie. Armstrong, 33 and aiming for his seventh straight Tour victory before he retires, remained first overall. Basso, a CSC rider who finished third last year, moved into second, 2:46 behind Armstrong, and Danish climbing expert Mickael Rasmussen dropped from second to third and is now 3:09 behind the leader.

Armstrong's nemesis, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, dropped an additional 1:24 to Armstrong yesterday and is fourth, 5:58 behind.

Basso echoed the mood of the peloton - that yesterday's massive climbing stage was the last realistic chance to gain significant time on Armstrong.

"I felt really good today," Basso said. "I tried to drop Lance, but he was simply too strong. If you attack, it has to be with a purpose, and after having tried it twice, I realized that Lance was unbeatable."

Hincapie could hardly contain his emotions at the end. Armstrong pounded his friend on the back and later said that Hincapie was "my best friend, my most loyal friend" on the team.

Armstrong's day had begun with a deeply felt meeting with the widow and son of rider Fabio Casartelli. Ten years ago, Casartelli, riding with Armstrong on the U.S. team Motorola, was killed in a crash up Col du Portet d'Aspet. The same climb was the first of six yesterday, and many riders, including Armstrong and Hincapie, rode with white bands around their arms in honor of Casartelli.

"You have to keep in mind that in 1995 Fabio was the last guy, the ninth guy, selected to the team and the guy next in line was George," Armstrong said. "So this is special for me, it's special for George, it's special for Fabio's family."

It wasn't the plan for him to go to the lead early and still be leading at the end, Hincapie said.

"I just thought I would wait for Lance when he needed me," he said. "But once we got an 18-minute break, I spoke to Johan [Bruyneel, Discovery Channel sports director], and he told me the peloton probably wouldn't be coming back and just told me to go for it."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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