Saving it for the mountains
Armstrong in second as Petacchi wins his fourth stagePosted: Friday July 11, 2003 11:11 AM
Updated: Friday July 11, 2003 6:31 PM
LYON, France (AP) -- Monsters for some, manna for others, the feared mountains of the Tour de France offer four-time champion Lance Armstrong a crucial chance to power away from rivals as he goes for a fifth win. (Results | Overall Standings)
Armstrong was lying second overall, behind one of his teammates, after Friday's long and strenuous sixth stage from Nevers to Lyon. But except for a couple of noteworthy hills, the stage -- like the five others over the past week -- was relatively flat. The Alps, which start Saturday, are an entirely different story.
"Until now it's been a psychological game to see where everyone is situated," said Johan Bruyneel, sporting director of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. From Saturday, "the real Tour de France begins."
Among those who expected to struggle in the climbs was Italian rider Alessandro Petacchi, the sprint sensation of this centennial Tour's first week.
Finding hidden reserves of strength, he blasted past opponents in the dash at the finish Friday, taking his fourth victory in six days in cycling's premier event.
Armstrong finished 39th, harboring his energy, as he has done for much of the week, for the mountains where he excels. His U.S. Postal Service teammate Victor Hugo Pena kept the top spot in the Tour's overall standings -- thanks to a one-second lead he has over Armstrong.
But Pena, the first Colombian to be wearing the coveted yellow jersey that the Tour awards to its overall leader, said that in the Alps, the Postal team's goal is to help Armstrong equal the record of five successive victories held by Spanish great Miguel Indurain.
"I'm going to do my job as a teammate to make sure Lance wins his fifth Tour de France," he said. "Lance Armstrong will have the yellow jersey."
The 230.5-kilometer (140.12-mile) haul Saturday from Lyon to the ski resort of Morzine-Avoriaz is the Tour's longest stage and the first of three days of alpine ascents. Four others come later in the Pyrenees.
Saturday's route includes the 1,619-meter (5,342-foot) Col de la Ramaz, not the Tour's biggest climb but daunting nonetheless.
"A lot of people will look at it as a medium mountain day, not a monumental day," said Armstrong. "But just moving on a mountain is very hard."
"It's the first real climb," Bruyneel said of the Ramaz ascent. "It's a chance to see who is in good shape and who's not."
Bad days in the mountains can shape the outcome of a Tour.
Armstrong says he was lucky not to lose the event in 2000 on a climb to Morzine, when he ran out of energy because he hadn't eaten enough. He struggled on, losing more than a minute to key rival Jan Ullrich -- the 1997 Tour winner putting up a strong challenge again this year. "It was the worst day of my life on a bicycle," the 31-year-old Texan said in his autobiography.
Petacchi, who has proved awesome on flat finishes like Friday's in Lyon, was among the riders not relishing the prospect.
"As soon as the road begins to climb, it's very difficult for me," the Italian said.
Petacchi's victory secured him the green jersey -- awarded to the fastest sprinter. He said that if he gets over the Alps, he hopes to still be wearing it at the finish in Paris on July 27.
"I know it's something very special what I'm doing here," said Petacchi, who also won sprint finishes in stages 1, 3 and 5. "It's really historic."
He blew past second-placed Australian Baden Cooke of FDJeux.com, and third-placed Fabrizio Guidi, an Italian rider for Team Bianchi, at the line.
Petacchi, who rides for Fassa Bortolo, completed the 230-kilometer (142.6-mile) trek from Nevers in 5 hours, 8 minutes and 35 seconds, averaging 44.7 kilometers per hour (27.7 miles per hour) despite blazing summer sun and temperatures of 32 degrees Centigrade (90 Fahrenheit).
The stage, the Tour's second-longest, included a trying ascent of the 708-meter- (2,336-foot-) Cote des Echarmeaux, 71 kilometers (44 miles) from the finish.
Petacchi said he struggled but his teammates helped shield him from the wind so he could stay with the pack for a sprint finish.
"My companions have again done an extraordinary job," he said. "They brought me into a front position in the descent from the hills for the sprint -- and I thank them."
"I don't know where I got the energy because I was going flat-out," he said. "But when I see the finish line my strength comes back."