Armstrong prepares to be reunited with Alpe d'HuezPosted: Sunday July 13, 2003 8:37 AM
MORZINE, France (AP) -- Lance Armstrong is about to be reunited with a familiar friend.
The Texan, chasing a record-equaling fifth-straight Tour de France win, prepares to take on the daunting Alpe d'Huez on Sunday -- a legendary Alpine climb that features the Tour's highest ascent.
In 2001, he conquered that mountain -- going on to clinch his third straight title.
Armstrong is currently second overall following a 15th-place finish in Saturday's seventh stage, which was won by popular Frenchman Richard Virenque.
The American has been reluctant to attack thus far. Staying relatively safe in the sprints -- he escaped without serious harm after an awkward crash last weekend -- the 31-year-old has been saving his batteries.
The feeling in the U.S. Postal Service camp is that Sunday's eighth stage is where the four-time winner will truly sound the battle cry.
"For Lance, the real Tour starts tomorrow," said Jogi Muller, U.S. Postal's spokesman. "He is very confident."
Sunday's mountain trek -- a 219-kilometer (135.78-mile) winding route from Morzine to L'Alpe d'Huez -- includes the ominous Col du Galibier, which stands at 2,645 meters (8,728.5 feet).
"Let's wait and see," Armstrong told Sunday's edition of L'Equipe, the French sports daily. "L'Alpe d'Huez is very hard and I don't think things will be the same as they were today (Saturday)," he said.
"There will be some attacks and it's better that way. The Tour has begun, and I'm not complaining."
While other riders may gasp at the Col du Galibier in wonderment and even fear, Armstrong only has to cast his mind back and relax in the warm memory of his inspiring climb there two years ago.
In 2001, he dominated the field, finishing four minutes ahead of Gonzalez Galdeano, considered a rival that year.
Galdeano was not the only one to suffer.
Germany's Jan Ullrich, a 1997 Tour champion and looking strong enough to rival Armstrong this year, also saw his challenge obliterated at d'Huez in 2001.
Following the climb, Ullrich found himself 2:34 adrift of Armstrong, to whom he eventually finished runner-up for the second straight year.
Still, there is a composed look about Ullrich this year. Firm and toned, he is bearing up physically despite a lack of race practice and cash troubles with his former team.
"If his knee is holding up," Muller added, "then he is one of the main threats no question."
While Armstrong finished Saturday's stage -- a 230.5-kilometer (142.91-mile) haul from Lyon to Morzine -- trailing behind Virenque, it is the position of Team Bianchi's Ullrich that may concern him more.
The German, who only joined Bianchi after financial difficulties forced him to quit German-owned Team Coast in the spring, sits only 38 seconds behind Armstrong.
In Saturday's stage, the longest of the centennial Tour, Virenque powered through the mountains to take his sixth career stage win.
Armstrong, looking to match Spain's Miguel Indurain as the only cyclist ever to win the showcase event five straight times, finished 4:06 behind Virenque.
"I felt extremely good," Armstrong said of his performance Saturday. "Today, it was too easy," he told L'Equipe.
Overall, Armstrong sits 2:37 behind Virenque -- a member of the Festina team that was ejected from the 1998 Tour after customs officers found banned drugs in a team car.
In a trial that followed, Virenque caused a furor with a tearful testimony on systematic drug abuse within his team.
His admission of doping led to a seven-month ban that kept him out of the 2001 Tour.