Thursday, July 17, 2003

For once, Armstrong's in reach of his rivals

Four-time champ hasn't dominated as usual in mountains

The Associated Press

MARSEILLE, France - Ahead of the pack at the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong can't help but peek over his shoulder.

The four-time champion held the overall lead by a handful of seconds following Tuesday's 10th stage, and he is by no means clear of the chasing pack just a few days before Friday's individual time trials.

"It may be the most important time trial I've ever done," said Armstrong, who finished 45th Tuesday and is going for his record-tying fifth straight Tour victory.

"I've been focusing a lot on the time trial this year in terms of training," Armstrong said. "I know the course pretty well."

Showing signs of vulnerability in this year's centennial Tour - Armstrong was seriously challenged in the recent Alpine stages - he needs a good time trial more than usual. After Friday, Armstrong faces four grueling stages in the Pyrenees.

A good performance in Friday's 29-mile race against the clock would give him a crucial time advantage to take into the mountains.

"Lance usually makes a strong showing right from the start in the Alps, as if to say to his rivals, 'You've got to come and beat me,' " said Stephen Roche, a Tour winner in 1987. "But the fact he didn't means he couldn't do it. Don't forget - Armstrong is a year older now."

Armstrong is seeking to tie Spain's Miguel Indurain as the only cyclist ever to win cycling's showcase event five times in a row.

Three others, Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil and Belgium's Eddy Merckx, have also won five Tours - but none did so consecutively.

With a rest day Wednesday to recover from a strenuous first half of the Tour - so far Armstrong has crashed, had technical difficulties with his bike and problems with his shoes - the 31-year-old heads into today's 11th stage just 21 seconds ahead of Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov overall.

Spain's Iban Mayo is 1:02 behind Armstrong, while Germany's Jan Ullrich - reputed as a rider who gets stronger in the second half of the race - is 2:10 back in sixth place overall.

"Vinokourov is looking really good this year and I think he can win it," Australian cyclinst Baden Cooke said.

In Tuesday's 10th stage, Armstrong finished in a large pack of riders who completed the 136-mile stage from Gap to the southern port city of Marseille way behind the winner, Denmark's Jakob Piil of Team CSC. Armstrong's key rivals finished with him, meaning they did not gain time on the champion.

Wearing the leader's yellow jersey, Armstrong finished 21:23 behind Piil - who had never won a stage at the Tour.

Piil was among the breakaway group of nine riders surging ahead of the main pack just 9.9 miles into the race. Their breakaway lasted more than 124 miles - the longest of this year's Tour.

Piil beat Italian rider Fabio Sacchi of the Saeco team in a final sprint at the finish. Bram de Groot of the Netherlands was third.

At a glance

Yellow jersey: American Lance Armstrong, in pursuit of his fifth straight Tour championship, has the overall lead in a time of 45 hours, 46 minutes, 22 seconds.

Others: Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov is second, 21 seconds behind; Spain's Iban Mayo is third, 1:02 behind; Spain's Francisco Mancebo is fourth, 1:37 behind; the United States' Tyler Hamilton is fifth, 1:52 behind.

Next stage: Today's 11th stage is a 95-mile route from Narbonne to Toulouse.

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