"Tourminator’ delivers upset
CAP DECOUVERTE, France – American Lance Armstrong was dealt a stunning loss Friday at the Tour de France, coming second to German star Jan Ullrich in the race’s 12th stage, a 29-mile race against the clock, and leaving experts wondering if Armstrong’s four-year Tour spell has been broken.
“I ran out of water. It’s the thirstiest I’ve ever been,” said Armstrong, who lost by a minute, 36 seconds to Ullrich. “I had an incredible crisis. I felt like I was going backwards.”
Texas-like heat apparently sapped Armstrong’s strength, as he couldn’t match Ullrich’s grinding power over the rolling course in southern France. Armstrong said he ran out of water about two-thirds of the way around the course and nearly lost his hold on the race leader’s yellow jersey as a result.
“It was harder than I anticipated and the heat certainly played a factor. It was hard to stay cool and stay hydrated,” said Armstrong, who retained the Tour’s lead by just 34 seconds. “Immediately my mouth was dry as a desert.”
While Armstrong retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey and widened his lead over other key rivals, Armstrong’s loss to Ullrich is seen as further sign of vulnerability.
“It shows that Lance is not as strong as the other years and reveals that Ullrich is stronger than we believed,” said Iban Mayo, a dangerous Spanish rider who promises to attack in the upcoming mountain stages in the Pyrenees. “I believe Armstrong is in a hard position now to win the Tour.”
No. 5 not easy
The road toward a record-tying fifth Tour victory has been wrought with difficulties for the 31-year-old Texan, who’s endured pre-race stomach problems, a crash in Stage 1, less-than-spectacular form in the Alps and a dramatic near-miss in his exciting “short-cut” in Stage 9. Many expected Armstrong to bounce out of his shell Friday and deliver the knock-out blow that’s so far eluded him in his quest to join the Tour’s elite five-win club.
Instead, Armstrong looked like a mere mortal against a revived Ullrich, who blasted over the course in 58 minutes, 32 seconds – the only rider to finish the course in under an hour.
“I’m not overly satisfied with my performance, but it could have been worse,” said Armstrong, who looked visibly drained. “I was at my maximum. When I saw that I was losing time, I tried to stay consistent and not lose too much time.”
Ullrich, a former world champion in the time trial, turned Friday’s rolling course into a personal redemption tour while leaving Armstrong to suck on his fumes. For the 29-year-old German – who’s coming back from two knee surgeries and a racing ban after testing positive for the party drug ecstasy last June – it’s his first Tour stage victory since 1998, when he was given the name “The Tourminator” by the German press.
“This victory leaves me without words,” said Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 and twice has been runner-up to Armstrong. “My goal was to win a stage at this Tour, not to worry about the general classification. After what’s happened to me the past few years, what I wanted to do in this Tour is to prove I could come back.”
Alexandre Vinokourov of Telekom, meanwhile, rode surprisingly well, losing just 30 seconds to Armstrong and moving into third overall at just 51 seconds back. The tenacious Kazakh attacked in all three stages in the Alps and promises more of the same in the upcoming Pyrenees.
American Tyler Hamilton of CSC, however, appeared handicapped by the double fracture in his right collarbone he suffered in a spill in Stage 1, but gritted through to take fifth. He now sits fourth overall at 2:59 back.
While many saw disaster in Armstrong’s performance, his U.S. Postal Service team saw things in a different light. Although he didn’t win, Armstrong took out important time on such dangerous climbers as Mayo, who fell to sixth at 4:29 back, and Francisco Mancebo, now seventh at 5:01 back.
“This is a Tour of calculation,” said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team. “We still have the yellow jersey. We took some minutes against some dangerous rivals. Jan was impressive, but he still has to prove himself in the mountains.”
Armstrong’s patience now will be tested in four nasty climbing stages spread over five days in the Pyrenees in what’s sure to decide the 2003 Tour winner. He sounded defensive when peppered by the press, long used to the Texan’s dominance at this stage of the Tour.
“Jan had a super day, but very rarely has he beaten me in an individual time trial. I would still be confident going into the final time trial,” he said. “It’s not my job to attack (in the Pyrenees). If the others attack, I will follow them – try to follow them.”
Nothing’s left to chance in the time-trial discipline. Armstrong rode the entire race tucked across forked handlebars in an aerodynamic position wearing a specially designed aerodynamic helmet to reduce drag.
One journalist noted a small fray on the back side of Armstrong’s high-tech full-body racing suit, which was designed without stitches to further reduce air resistance.
It may not have made much difference, but it was another small sign this year’s Tour hasn’t quite gone Armstrong’s way.
Editor’s note: For complete results, visit the Tour de France’s official Web site, http://www.letour.fr/2003/us/index.html.