Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Armstrong overcomes spill to rout rivals

Texan widens gap over Ullrich to 67 seconds

The Associated Press

LUZ-ARDIDEN, France - His yellow jersey smeared with dirt after a fall, Lance Armstrong got back on his bike with a fierce look that said: The Tour de France is slipping away. It's now or never.

Riding like the four-time champion he is, Armstrong overcame a hard crash and two weeks of lackluster form to tear away from his closest challengers Monday and set up cycling's premier race for a gripping finale.

In its 100-year history, the Tour has witnessed many epic days, but few like this.

A spectator knocked Armstrong off his bike just as he was accelerating away from archrival Jan Ullrich in the day's last ascent, to the ski resort of Luz-Ardiden high in the misty Pyrenees.

His left elbow grazed, Armstrong picked himself up, remounted and, fueled by the adrenaline of the crash, stormed past Ullrich to save his chances of equaling Miguel Indurain's record of five successive Tour wins.

Armstrong had gone into the stage, the 15th of 20 in the three-week Tour, with his overall lead hanging by a thread. Ullrich, the 1997 winner, was just 15 seconds back and gaining momentum, while Armstrong had struggled for days.

When he crashed, Armstrong said he told himself: "Lance, if you'd like to win the Tour de France, it's today."

He crossed the line 40 seconds ahead of Ullrich, slumped over his handlebars, drained. Overall, thanks to bonus time he got for finishing first, Armstrong widened the gap over the German to 67 seconds - giving him a vital cushion for crucial days ahead to the finish in Paris on Sunday.

But he could do without the drama. This has been a hard Tour for Armstrong. He battled stomach flu before the start on July 5; he was bruised in a crash on the second day; he failed to shine in the mountains where he usually dominates; he was crushed by Ullrich in a time trial last Friday.

"This has been a Tour of too many problems, too many close calls, too many near misses, too many things that seem like they're worth a lifetime," Armstrong said. "I wish it would stop. I wish I could have some uneventful days. But it was a good day today."

The stage win was Armstrong's first of this Tour, apart from an earlier team time trial victory, and put his career total at 16.

The Texan's dominant ride knocked his second-closest rival, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, out of the running, and gave Armstrong a cushion going into the last time trial Saturday.

Ullrich, an excellent time-trialer, bit a whopping 96 seconds out of Armstrong's overall lead in that event last Friday. Armstrong feared that if his lead over Ullrich stayed at 15 seconds before Saturday's race against the clock, his Tour could be lost. That left the Texan, an excellent climber, little choice but to attack on the lung-burning 8.3-mile ascent to Luz-Ardiden in hopes of widening the gap.

"I was a little bit desperate because I knew I needed to make the race today in order to put some more time into Jan," Armstrong said. "I knew today was a very big day for me. . . . and that if I wanted to win the Tour de France, it was necessary to go all out and attack."

But about 5.9 miles from the finish, a spectator's outstretched bag caught Armstrong's handlebars, toppling him. Armstrong hit the tarmac heavily, but was not badly hurt. He said the fall was partly his fault because he was shaving the huge, excited crowd that lined the winding ascent. Iban Mayo of Spain crashed into Armstrong as he lay in the road and fell, too.

The drama didn't stop there. Shortly after climbing back on his bike, Armstrong's right foot slipped out of his pedal and he nearly fell again.

Ullrich, who had to swerve to avoid Mayo and Armstrong's crash, proved to be a gentleman, waiting with other riders while Armstrong and Mayo caught up. Armstrong thanked his rival but recalled that he had also slowed down for Ullrich when he crashed on a steep descent from a mountain pass in 2001.

"Jan is a good guy, he's an honorable guy," Armstrong said. "As we say in English: 'What goes around comes around,' and so I appreciate him doing that."

Ullrich may regret his sportsmanship.

Armstrong threw himself onto his pedals after recovering, powering past Ullrich and other riders up the mountain into the mist, his eyes fixed determinedly on the road ahead. His legs whirring, a silver cross bouncing on his chest, Armstrong widened the gap as he ascended: 15 seconds, 20, 40. This was classic Armstrong, reminiscent of some of his great climbs of past Tours.

"Lance is back," said Floyd Landis, his U.S. Postal teammate.

At a glance

Monday's 15th stage: Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Luz-Ardiden, a 99-mile trek in the Pyrenees featuring Col du Tourmalet, a 6,976 feet climb.

Winner: Lance Armstrong, recovering from a fall to win his first stage in 4 hours, 29 minutes, 26 seconds.

Yellow jersey: Armstrong keeps the overall lead with a time of 65 hours, 36 minutes, 23 seconds.

Next: Today is a rest day.

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