Attacks from all sides
AX-3 DOMAINES, France – Lance Armstrong made it through another epic day at the Tour de France Saturday, surviving the heat of the Pyrenees mountains during in the 122-mile, 13th stage to retain the yellow jersey as overall leader – but definitely showing signs of weakness.
The four-time Tour champion was attacked from all sides by his rivals on the grinding, 5.6-mile climb to the stage finish here at the Ax-3 Domaines ski area, high in the French Pyrenees, just hanging on to finish fourth and keeping the “maillot jaune” by just 15 seconds over Bianchi’s hard-charging German, Jan Ullrich.
Hot and steep
Temperatures shot into the mid-90s once again in what’s being remembered as the warmest Tour in decades. Despite the heat and the long day ahead of them, riders wasted no time going on the attack.
The peleton Friday faced the challenging Port de Pailheres, one of the hardest climbs in this year’s Tour, featuring harrowing switchbacks and an average grade of 8 percent – with some pitches much steeper than that. The race approached from the south-facing flanks of the climb up a narrow road barely wide enough for a car to pass.
The road climbed to windswept, treeless summit with awesome views of the surrounding mountains. Tens of thousands of fans pressed down on the road for one of the most spectacular settings in this year’s Tour.
The stage was won by Spaniard Carlos Sastre of the Danish CSC team, who enjoyed the biggest day of his career, attacking on the Port de Pailheres and holding on to take the stage victory. In the final meters, the Spaniard reached into his jersey pocket, pulled out a baby suckle and popped it into his mouth as he crossed the finish line.
“I have it in my pocket every day I race, so I remember my baby and don’t take too many risks on the descents,” said Sastre. “It was an incredibly hard stage. I’ve come so close to big victories before, but something has always happened and I wouldn’t win. I didn’t want to think about what was happening behind me. I just kept pedaling.”
Fatigue from Friday
Armstrong admitted he was fatigued from the efforts in Friday’s individual time trial and tried to limit his losses when Ullrich and Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia attacked in the final two miles.
“It was a difficult day,” said Armstrong, who finished fourth more than a minute behind the stage-winner, Spaniard Carlos Sastre of the Danish CSC team. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy after the time trial. It’s impossible to recover in 24 hours after an effort like that. I’m not disappointed. There are still a lot of days left in the Pyrenees and still some chances.”
Meanwhile Ullrich, dubbed “The Tourminator” in 1997 on his way to winning the Tour that year, confirmed that he has the legs to attack in the mountains. A day after his dramatic victory in Friday’s time trial, Ullrich attacked Armstrong Saturday when the Texan faltered just before the mountain-top finish.
Ullrich could smell blood and punched the accelerator, dropping a fatigued Armstrong. Fortunately for Armstrong, the final kilometer of the climb was relatively flat and the Texan rode hard to limit the damage.
Ullrich came through to finish second behind Sastre, grabbing time bonus to trim his margin to Armstrong to just 15 seconds.
Armstrong said he felt drained from Friday’s time trial, when he forfeited 1:36 to Ullrich
“I see Jan very strong, and now I believe we can take the yellow jersey to Paris,” said Bianchi’s sport director Rudy Pevenage. “Jan is no longer afraid to attack like he was in 2000 and 2001. We hope it stays warm because the heat is good for Jan. Armstrong is always stronger when it gets cold.”
“At the start, I thought, “Uh-oh’ it’s going to be a bad day,” Armstrong added. “I’m not very disappointed. Ullrich looks to be riding great, better and better every day. I’m just going to ride my rhythm and not let him get too far.”
There were some shake-ups in the overall standings, indeed, with Basque rider Haimar Zubeldia of the Euskatel team moving ahead of American Tyler Hamilton of CSC. Sastre moved into ninth overall while Francisco Mancebo iBanesto.com fell to eighth.
Telekom’s Vinokourov actually lost 10 seconds to Armstrong after trying in vain to attack at the end. He remains in third place overall, however, at 1:01 back.
Sunday’s six-climb stage promises more fireworks in what’s sure to be a brutal day in the race. It looks to be a classic duel between Armstrong and Ullrich.
“One of the two will crack,” said France’s bad boy in the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains, Richard Virenque. “There’s going to be destruction in the days to come. It’s going to be spectacular.”
Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html.