Sunday, July 20, 2003

Ullrich closes Armstrong's gap


German trails Texan by 15 seconds

The Associated Press

AX-3 DOMAINES, France - A weary Lance Armstrong clung to a diminishing lead in the Tour de France as a surging Jan Ullrich powered away from him during Saturday's final punishing climb.

For the first time since Armstrong won the first of his four consecutive titles in 1999, the Tour was entering its final week too close to call.

AT A GLANCE
Stage: Toulouse to AX-3 Domaines. A 122.5-mile race into the Pyrenees that featured a 9.4-mile climb over a pass called Port de Pailheres, towering at 6,603 feet above sea level.
Winner: Spain's Carlos Sastre in 5 hours, 16 minutes, 8 seconds.
How Others Fared: Germany's Jan Ullrich finished second in a powerful sprint and pulled closer to Lance Armstrong in the overall standings. Armstrong came in fourth, 10 seconds ahead of Alexandre Vinokourov in fifth place. American Tyler Hamilton finished 10th.
Yellow Jersey: Armstrong retains an overall lead of 15 seconds over Ullrich.
Next Stage: Today's 14th stage races deeper into the Pyrenees, with a 119-mile grind from Saint-Girons to Loudenvielle-Le Louron.
Ullrich, looking almost fresh while Armstrong appeared gaunt and exhausted, is second overall and only 15 seconds behind the Texan. The German had trailed by 34 seconds entering the 13th stage.

"This was a very difficult effort," said Armstrong, who was fourth in the stage.

Ullrich, the 1997 winner from Germany, was second in the stage and said his next goal is to seize the overall lead.

"I'm going to try to take the yellow jersey tomorrow," he said through a translator on French TV. "I'll see how I feel, and if all goes well, I'll do the maximum."

Spain's Carlos Sastre won Saturday's 122.5-mile race from Toulouse to the ski resort of Ax-3 Domaines. The ride featured a 9.4-mile climb over a pass called Port de Pailheres, towering at 6,603 feet above sea level.

Ullrich was 61 seconds behind Sastre, who was timed in 5 hours, 16 minutes, 8 seconds. Spain's Haimar Zubeldia was third, 1:03 behind. Armstrong was next, 1:08 back.

Ullrich drew away from Armstrong in the last 5.6-mile climb to Ax-3 Domaines. His second-place finish in the stage resulted in a bonus of 12 seconds in the standings.

Despite his lackluster ride, Armstrong gained 10 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. The Kazak finished the stage in fifth place, falling 61 seconds behind the Texan in the overall standings.

Armstrong said Ullrich "looks to be riding great, better and better every day."

Weakened by the persistent heat, Armstrong had difficulty recuperating from Friday's demanding time trial in which Ullrich prevailed. He had doubts about his ability to dominate Saturday.

"I didn't expect to have super legs - yesterday was too hard. It was a really difficult effort," Armstrong said. "To recuperate is not possible in 24 hours, or 20 hours."

Ullrich is said to be battling a stomach problem, although he appears at the top of his game. He was 96 seconds ahead of second-place Armstrong in the time trial, setting up a tense four days in the Pyrenees. Saturday was the first stage in the mountains separating Spain and France.

"One of the two will crack," French rider Richard Virenque predicted.




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