Hamilton hurts no more | VailDaily.com

Hamilton hurts no more

Andrew Hood

BAYONNE, France – If there was ever any doubt before, Tyler Hamilton cemented his reputation Wednesday as the toughest man in the world’s toughest sport.

The 32-year-old New Englander gritted his teeth on his way to winning the 2003 Tour de France 16th stage, a deceptively challenging, mountainous ride from Pau to Bayonne, through the French Basque region.

Hamilton, 32, shook off searing shoulder pain to take a gritty solo stage victory in the Tour’s final mountain stage, erasing the disappointment of not being able to contend for this year’s Tour title. Even so, he remains in sixth place overall, 6 minutes and 35 seconds behind the leader, fellow-American Lance Armstrong.

“Up until now the Tour has been a little disappointing. Under the circumstances of my injury, I’ve done a respectable Tour. Without the injury, I could have done more,” said Hamilton, who fractured his right collarbone in a Stage 1 crash. “But now I am going to forget about the disappointment. I am extremely happy.”

Armstrong unchallenged

With Hamilton away on a heroic solo effort, Armstrong pushed over two very steep mountain stages in the French Basque Country unchallenged by his rivals and retained his 1 minute, 7 second lead over Jan Ullrich.

“I’m sleeping a lot better now with my lead at 1:07 rather than at 15 seconds,” Armstrong said. “The team is working well and the stage went smoothly.”

U.S. Postal Service director Johan Bruyneel said he’s confident Armstrong has recovered from his acute dehydration during last week’s time trial, when the Texan lost more than 10 pounds of body weight and saw his chances for a record-tying fifth Tour victory dwindle.

“We can see Lance is getting stronger every day. It was in a bad situation for a few days, but I believe he’s getting better, not worse,” Bruyneel said.

“The Tour is not over and Ullrich remains a dangerous challenger, so we cannot forget that,” he added.

Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service teammates can smell the finish line in Paris – just four days away – and rode strong in Wednesday’s deceptively difficult stage to keep a lid on Ullrich and third place rider Alexandre Vinokourov.

Armstrong’s dramatic victory Monday to Luz Ardiden lifted the mood among the U.S. Postal workhorses who are anxious to push Armstrong to his record-tying fifth Tour victory.

“That was the most exciting stage I’ve ever seen in the Tour de France,” said George Hincapie, the only teammate to be a part of all four of Armstrong’s victories. “It was a spectacular performance by Lance. It was a huge boost for the team.”

Sprinters back to the front

Armstrong will likely step aside in Thursday’s and Friday’s rolling flat stages, which are well-suited for the peloton’s thoroughbred sprinters, who put everything into frenetic late-charges to the line.

Saturday’s 30-mile time trial stage from Pornic to Nantes, however, is being billed as a heavyweight bout between Armstrong and Ullrich. The German took 1:36 out of Armstrong in the first Tour time trial last week in which Armstrong overheated in a scorching French heat-wave, but the Texan is confident he won’t make the same mistake twice.

“I’ve never lost a final time trial in the Tour and I don’t plan on starting this year,” Armstrong said. “My goal is to win the stage.”

Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html.

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