Armstrong hanging on |

Armstrong hanging on

Andrew Hood

LOUDENVIELLE, France – Lance Armstrong shook hands with arch rival Jan Ullrich coming across the finish line Sunday after holding his narrow 15-second lead in the Tour de France.

But the gesture was very different to the pair’s handshake at nearby Luz Ardiden high in the Pyrenees two years ago, when Armstrong was triumphant and the German was the frustrated runner-up.

This year, the tables are turned and it’s Armstrong who’s running scared and Ullrich is seen as the man to beat despite the Texan’s hold on the yellow jersey.

“It’s obvious I’m not riding as well as I have in years past,” said Armstrong after finishing 11th behind stage-winner Gilberto Simoni. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say something’s not right.”

With the 2003 Tour hanging in the balance, Ullrich and Armstrong return to Luz Ardiden for Monday’s 15th stage in what’s sure to be an epic battle for cycling’s most important race.

“Something’s not going right’

“Tomorrow is a very big day,” said Armstrong, whose quest to join the Tour’s five-win club has been wrought with difficulties. “Something’s not going right, but I can’t do anything about it now.”

Only four racers have won the Tour five times and Armstrong admits now he might not become the fifth at least this year.

“If I lose this Tour, I’ll go home, have a cold beer and come back next year,” Armstrong said. “I’m not going to cry and whine about it. I’m just going to do my best.”

Armstrong dodged a bullet in Sunday’s six-climb stage across the French Pyrenees when Telekom rider Alexandre Vinokourov nearly stole the yellow jersey away in a daring attack. The 29-year-old Kazakh – already a winner this year of Paris-Nice, Amstel Gold and the Tour of Switzerland – attacked hard on the steep Col de Peyresourde just 10 miles from the finish line. He finished sixth and chipped away at Armstrong’s lead to move into third at just 18 seconds back.

Armstrong rode defensively and stayed on Ullrich’s wheel up the grinding climb lined with tens of thousands of crazed fans. Armstrong used his excellent descending skills to narrow the margin coming into the valley floor finish at Loudenvielle.

Poor form?

Armstrong has been struggling through poor form since the Tour started July 5. The 31-year-old Texan forfeited time to Ullrich in Friday’s time trial and then faltered up the steep finish Saturday.

Armstrong looked fresher on the bike Sunday after temperatures dipped into the 80s and clouds rolled over the high mountaintops, taking the edge off a heat-wave that’s gripped France for more than a month.

“(Saturday) was very hard after the time-trial effort. I expected to feel better than I did,” he said. “If I can improve overnight, maybe I will try to attack.”

The Tour hits this year’s final mountaintop finish Monday with three riders within 18 seconds of each other. After coasting to four consecutive Tour victories, Armstrong has a real fight on his hands.

“I knew before the prologue in Paris that it was going to be close,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t expect it to come down to the last decisive stages. This is a bit of a surprise.”

Shootout guaranteed today

Today’s 99-mile 15th stage has all the ingredients of a classic. The course hits the legendary Col du Tourmalet and finishes on the beyond-category switchback climb up Luz Ardiden. It’s sure to be a shoot-out.

Armstrong is chasing history, after all, while Ullrich is desperately searching for Tour redemption after years in cycling’s wilderness. Vinokourov, meanwhile, is riding in the name of fallen comrade Andrei Kivilev, who died in a racing accident in March.

Sitting quietly behind them are Euskaltel’s Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo, now fourth and fifth, respectively, at 4:16 and 4:37 back. Tens of thousands of crazed Basque fans are sure to line the course.

Euskaltel team manager Julian Gorospe laid down the gauntlet:

“We will attack for everything (Monday). Not just to win the stage or to finish on the podium, but to take the yellow jersey.”

Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site,


Steve Wood – assistant editor, local news

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