Ullrich closes in
German rival cuts further into Armstrong's Tour leadPosted: Saturday July 19, 2003 11:38 AM
Updated: Saturday July 19, 2003 1:41 PM
AX-3 DOMAINES, France (AP) -- A weary Lance Armstrong clung desperately to a diminishing overall lead in the Tour de France on Saturday, watching helplessly as resurgent archrival Jan Ullrich powered away from him in the day's final punishing climb. (Results and standings)
For the first time since four-time champion Armstrong's first win in 1999, the Tour was roaring into its final week too close to call, with plenty of room for surprises and Ullrich snapping at the 31-year-old Texan's heels.
Ullrich, looking almost fresh while Armstrong looked gaunt and exhausted, zoomed away in a dramatic last 9.1-kilometer (5.6-mile) climb to the ski resort of Ax-3 Domaines, high in the Pyrenees that separate France and Spain.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, finished second, narrowing the gap between him and Armstrong, who placed fourth in the stage, to just 15 seconds in the overall standings.
Never has the Tour been so close at this stage since Armstrong first won. While Armstrong appears to be struggling, Ullrich seems to be gaining strength and confidence. Going into Saturday's 13th stage, he trailed Armstrong by 34 seconds. After the race, he said his next aim was to take the overall leader's jersey off Armstrong's back.
"I'm going to try to take the yellow jersey tomorrow, I'll see how I feel, and if all goes well, I'll do the maximum," Ullrich said through a translator on France-2 TV.
For his part, Armstrong said Ullrich "looks to be riding great, better and better every day."
In the face of the German's challenge, "I'm just going to ride my rhythm and not let him get too far," said Armstrong, who is aiming to match Spanish great Miguel Indurain's record of five successive Tour wins.
Spanish cyclist Carlos Sastre won Saturday's stage, a grueling 197.5-kilometer (122.45-mile) race from Toulouse to Ax-3 Domaines, with a 15.2-kilometer (9.4-mile) climb over a pass called Port de Pailheres, 2,001 meters (6,603 feet) above sea level.
Ullrich finished 1 minute and 1 second behind Sastre, who ran the course in 5 hours, 16 minutes and eight seconds. Spanish rider Haimar Zubeldia was third, 1:03 behind. Armstrong was fourth, 1:08 behind. Because he placed 2nd at the line, Ullrich gained a bonus of 12 seconds in the overall standings.
For Armstrong, there was an upside to his somewhat lackluster ride: He gained 10 seconds over another rival, Alexandre Vinokourov, who finished fifth. The Kazak fell back to 1 minute and 1 second behind Armstrong overall. Going into the stage, Vinokourov had been just 51 seconds behind.
Racing on each other's shoulders in the last part of the Ax-3 Domaines climb, Ullrich and Armstrong looked across at each other before the German sped ahead, dropping Armstrong as he pursued an attack by Vinokourov, who he then overtook. Ullrich roared to the line grimacing with effort, but not looking drawn like Armstrong.
Armstrong said he'd had difficulty recuperating from Friday's time trial, in which Ullrich prevailed. The German was 1 minute, 36 seconds ahead of second-placed Armstrong in that crucial event, setting the Tour up for four nail-biting days in the Pyrenees.
"One of the two will crack," French rider Richard Virenque said of Ullrich and Armstrong. "There's going to be destruction in the days to come. It's going to be spectacular."
Armstrong has struggled through the Tour to stamp his dominance on this race, complaining of the persistent heat and his less-than-perfect form. His chance to recover may come Sunday, when predictions of rain in the Pyrenees may help cool the route down.
Armstrong said he emerged from Friday's time trial depleted and with doubts about his ability to dominate the first leg of the rugged Pyrenees.
"I didn't expect to have super legs -- yesterday was too hard. It was a really difficult effort," Armstrong said. "To recuperate ... is not possible in 24 hours, or 20 hours."
"At the start ... I thought 'uh-oh' it's going to be a bad day," he said. But with three days left in the Pyrenees, "I still have a lot of chances."
Armstrong, the 1999-2002 champion who dominated previous Tours, finds himself in the unusual position of having only a razor-thin lead with seven days of racing to go.
In 1999, Armstrong led by nearly 8 minutes after 13 stages. But his advantage at that point has shrunk with each passing year. He was 4:55 ahead in 2000, 3:54 ahead in 2001 and 2:28 ahead in 2002.
In other years at this point, "I was lucky enough to have three or four or five minutes" advantage, Armstrong said. "It's never been obviously this close, it's a different race, perhaps more exciting."
Virenque, who placed 13th Saturday and retained the polka dot jersey as the best climber, said he believes Ullrich had stomach problems Saturday and that "Armstrong is there and hasn't cracked yet."
But Armstrong needs a larger cushion of time over Ullrich before a final time trial on July 26th, the day before the Tour finishes in Paris.
Sastre, of the CSC team, stuck a baby's pacifier in his mouth as he crossed the finish line to win -- a tribute, he said, to his daughter Claudia who turns 2 in August.
He, for one, was not ready to write Armstrong off yet.
"I don't think we can say he has weak points," he said. "He's really resistant. He's a big champion."