Armstrong surges into yellow
ALPE d’HUEZ, France – Year after year, the Tour de France’s most famous climb provokes epic, memorable performances from the world’s best cyclists. This year is no exception.
As usual, hundreds of thousands of fans packed the course throughout the day as the French continue to show their affection for the Tour’s 100th birthday. A warm summer sun welcomed the riders in Sallanches who enjoyed wonderful unobstructed views of Mont Blanc.
Sunday was unlike two years ago, however, when American Lance Armstrong of the U.S. Postal Service wobbled on his bike and pretended he was in trouble before jetting to a dramatic stage victory in what’s become known in cycling lore as “the bluff.”
This time, there was no acting. Armstrong endured attack after attack in the 135.7-mile eighth stage to finish third and grab the Tour’s race leader’s jersey, but admitted it wasn’t easy.
“There was no bluff today. It was a hard day. There were a lot of attacks and I didn’t have the greatest legs – no bluffing,” said Armstrong, who finished 2 minutes, 12 seconds behind stage-winner Iban Mayo, a Basque rider with the Euskatel team.
“This Tour still has a long way to go. I won’t forget that,” said Armstrong, who now leads Spanish rider Joseba Beloki, another Basque rider with ONCE, by 40 seconds. “This race is not finished.”
Mayo, meanwhile, delivered on a promise to win a Tour stage, shooting away from the lead group of favorites on the final climb to Alpe d’Huez and holding on for the biggest win of his career.
Mayo has been nipping at Armstrong’s heels since June’ Dauphine-Libere, known as the Tour’s “dress-rehearsal,” in which Mayo attacked Armstrong in the mountains and only ceded the race for the time he lost in the individual time trial. Mayo’s team, Euskaltel –sponsored by the namesake Basque telephone company – was intent on making something happening on the Tour’s most famous climb and loaded three riders into the early front group at the base of the Alpe d’Huez.
Then Mayo jumped hard with about 4.5 miles to go up the famously steep switchbacks and never looked back. Fellow Basque rider Beloki, Telekom’s Alexandre Vinokourov and American Tyler Hamilton of CSC all attacked Armstrong, too – but the Texan rode steadily to cover the moves and not lose any time to his rivals.
Armstrong “not as strong’
Armstrong’s quest to join the Tour’s five-win club got off to a bumpy start with stomach problems before last weekend’s prologue in Paris. Then he suffered his first-ever Tour crash in stage 1 and tweaked his back.
“I am perhaps not as strong as the other years. I’ve had some problems that I’ve felt since the beginning of the Tour,” Armstrong said. “I feel like I’m getting a little better.”
There was plenty of early attacks in the monster stage. Tour leader Richard Virenque of France wore a full-body yellow jersey and grabbed the day’s first mountain points over the Category 3 Cote de Megeve. The Quick Step rider faltered, however, on the lower flanks of Alpe d’Huez to end his dream of wearing the maillot jaune in Monday’s Bastille Day, but at least he’ll have the best climber’s polka-dot jersey.
“Wasn’t on a great day’
Earlier, midway up the grueling 8,728-foot summit of the Col de Galibier – the highest point of the Tour this year – Armstrong knew he didn’t have the winning legs.
“I could tell I wasn’t on a great day on the Galibier and I decided to ride a conservative day,” Armstrong said. “It was not a great day today, but you don’t have to make a show every day.”
While he didn’t win the stage, Armstrong was strong enough to grab the yellow jersey.
The day’s major losers, meanwhile, included Italian Gilberto Simoni of Saeco, whose woes continued, and yet another Basque rider, Aitor Gonzalez of Fassa Bortolo, who joined three other teammates in an early Tour exit suffering with “a virus.”
Another pre-race favorite, German Jan Ullrich of Bianchi, the winner of the 1997 Tour, lost more than a minute to Armstrong Sunday after finishing 13th at 3:36 back.
This year’s Tour course is much different than year’s past, when one of two individual time trials would typically come before the first mountain stage. This year’s first time trial stage doesn’t come until Friday, so Armstrong is playing the patient hand.
Like Armstrong said after donning the yellow jersey for the first time in the 2003 Tour, this race is far from over.
Tour organizers said they jiggled the course layout to keep things interesting. With eight riders within less than three minutes of Armstrong, they’re getting their wish.
Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html.