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Flecha claims stage

Armstrong stays in yellow as Tour reaches Toulouse

Posted: Thursday July 17, 2003 11:15 AM
Updated: Thursday July 17, 2003 1:23 PM
  Juan Antonio Flecha Juan Antonio Flecha broke away 13 kilometers from the finish. AP

TOULOUSE, France (AP) -- Lance Armstrong clung to his fragile overall lead Thursday in one of the least punishing stages of the Tour de France, finishing in 29th place and reserving his energy for a vital upcoming race.

The 153.5-kilometer (95.2 mile) stage, a relatively flat and short trajectory along southern France from Narbonne to Toulouse, was won by Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha of iBanesto.com, competing in his first Tour. Armstrong finished the stage 42 seconds behind Flecha. (Full Results | Overall Standings)

In the overall standings, Armstrong is 21 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan. Vinokourov finished Thursday's stage in 30th place, in the same time as Armstrong.

Other key rivals who finished in the same time were 1997 winner Jan Ullrich in 22nd place, Spanish rider Francisco Mancebo in 23rd place and Iban Mayo of Spain in 33rd. American Tyler Hamilton -- who has emerged as a hero of the race for competing with a fractured collarbone -- finished 44th.

Armstrong, who rides for U.S. Postal Service, will wear the overall leader's yellow jersey in the crucial individual time trial on Friday, a moment of truth when riders race alone against the clock.

But the slim lead that Armstrong has as he embarks on the second half of the cycling's showcase event is raising questions about whether the four-time champion can win a record-tying fifth title.

With key rivals nipping at his heels, Armstrong said Friday's stage may be the most important time trial that he has ever raced in the Tour. The 31-year-old Texan carefully scouted out the hilly 47-kilometer (29.1-mile) stage before the Tour began.

"I like the course because there's a little hill near the end, but we'll have to see at the end because the wind direction might change," he said.

"The standings are very close," Armstrong conceded.

To keep rivals at bay, Armstrong also needs to do well in the Pyrenees mountains, four grueling stages of leg-crushing cycling that begin Saturday.

Vinokourov said he felt in top shape and was pleased with his performance so far.

"It gives my morale a boost ahead the race against the clock and the Pyrenees," he said.

Dutch cyclist Bram De Groot, riding for Rabobank, finished Thursday's stage in second place, and Spanish rider Isidro Nozal of ONCE-Eroski was third.

The 11th stage, devoid of treacherous climbs, gave Armstrong a chance to conserve his forces ahead of the time trial. The stage represented a chance for lesser-known riders to grab the spotlight while the front-runners hung back and tried to avoid crashing.

The race began under sunny skies, and temperatures along the route reached about 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit).

"It's incredible, but I want to dedicate my win to my whole team," Flecha said after his victory, visibly exhausted after a powerful sprint to the finish. (Flecha hits the bull's-eye at last)

Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is following part of the Tour, returned the leader's yellow jersey to Armstrong when the cyclist ascended the podium.

 
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