Out of time
Struggling Armstrong admits battle for formPosted: Sunday July 20, 2003 1:30 PM
Updated: Sunday July 20, 2003 2:14 PM
LOUDENVIELLE, France (Reuters) -- Lance Armstrong admitted Sunday that something was clearly going wrong with his bid to win a record-equalling fifth Tour de France.
The American race leader, who had swept all before him since 1999, is just 15 seconds ahead of nearest rival Jan Ullrich of Germany and 18 seconds clear of Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov.
"Something's not clicking and I would not argue with that," he said after Sunday's 191.5 km 14th stage in the Pyrenees was won by Italian Gilberto Simoni.
"It's fair to say that I'm not riding as well as I have in years past. I don't know exactly why," he said.
A man used to dominating the Tour was soundly beaten by Ullrich in Friday's time trial, lost more time to the German on Saturday and was well-beaten by Vinokourov on Sunday.
"Times speak for themselves. If you look at the times in the climbs, I was four minutes slower on L'Alpe d'Huez this year than when I won in 2001," said the Texan.
"On the Plateau de Bonascre yesterday, I was slower too," he sighed.
On Sunday, in the six climbs of the hardest mountain stage in this Tour, Armstrong was often seen standing up on his pedals in sections where he once would have remained seated.
"I was standing up more than normal because... I don't know why," he said. "I even said to myself 'damn, I'm standing up a lot. I'm still not a 100 percent."'
But the Texan, who built his four Tour wins by making decisive moves in the mountains, said he was hoping to recover in time to attack in Monday's 15th stage to Luz Ardiden.
"Something is not going right and there's nothing I can do about it. All I can do is wake up every morning and try my best.
"Hopefully I will improve overnight and be at my best for the Luz Ardiden stage which finishes at the top of a mountain," he added.
Though he has two men breathing down his neck, the U.S. Postal team leader sees Ullrich as his only serious rival.
"Vinokourov is aggressive and always going into moves, but I've decided there's only one rider I have to be concerned about and that's Jan Ullrich," he said.
"I'm not going to chase Vinokourov."
He did not do so on Sunday when the Kazakh attacked on the last hill, leaving most of the chasing job to Ullrich.
"I think it's also his responsibility to ride. In my view, he's just as much the race leader as I am," said Armstrong, who admitted he had not expected such a tight race.
This year's Tour could be decided in next Saturday's 49 km time trial between Pornic and Nantes -- the penultimate stage.
"As I said at the start in Paris, I knew it was gonna be close.
"But I probably did not expect it to come down to the last decisive time trial for the Tour to be decided. This perhaps is a bit of a surprise.
"I have only a 15 seconds edge and I could lose 16 seconds in the time trial and lose the closest Tour de France in history."
Putting on a brave face, he added: "If it happened I'd go home, have a beer and come back next year. I'm not going to cry and whine."
Simoni's stage win helps mask disappointment
LOUDENVIELLE, France (Reuters) -- Italian rider Gilberto Simoni put his disappointing overall performance in the Tour de France to one side on Sunday as he celebrated winning the 14th stage to Loudenvielle in the Pyrenees.
Simoni had talked up his chances of taking on American Lance Armstrong in the Tour after he won the Giro d'Italia in early June.
But those hopes disappeared when his Saeco team put in a terrible performance in the team time trial and he suffered in the Alps to slip down the overall standings to 50th place.
Simoni almost gave up after stage 10 to Marseille, but decided to carry on in the hope of riding well in the Pyrenees.
"Winning today pays me back for all the tough moments of the last two weeks," Simoni said.
"It was difficult finishing in the last group of riders well down on the leaders in the Alps. I've won the Giro d'Italia this year and could have been satisfied with that but I wanted to carry on, fight back and try to win a stage."
"I'm someone who never gives up and I believe a fighter will always end up winning if he keeps going. Yesterday, my team director wanted me to stop but I refused. I said I wanted to go on to win a stage. Now I've proved I was right."
"I think I must have had some kind of flu or virus when I wasn't riding well because I faded from one day to the next.
"In Paris I was feeling great and rode a super prologue, finishing only 13 seconds behind (Australian Bradley) McGee, but then we rode very badly in the team time trial due to lack of experience.
"I never managed to recover physically and everything went from bad to worse in the Alps."
Simoni beat Laurent Dufaux of Switzerland, French hero Richard Virenque and Andrea Peron of Italy in a close sprint finish in Loudenvielle on Sunday.
They had been part of a 17-rider attack that went clear after just four kilometers of the 191.5-km stage and broke away from the other riders on the last of the six climbs that characterized the stage.
"When we got a big gap early on I hoped the break would go all the way so that I could try and win. There were still lots of climbs to go but I was very determined today," said Simoni.
"Fortunately, we all worked well together and shared the work on the front of the line. I did not take part in the sprints or race for the mountain classification because the only thing I wanted was the stage win."
"Winning a stage does not quite make up for the disappointment of not being up there in the overall standings, but at least it erases the fatigue from the last week and turns my Tour from a disaster into a success and a lesson for the future," Simoni said.
Tour woes continue for suffering Millar
LOUDENVIELLE, France (Reuters) -- David Millar, who has been suffering from a throat infection and cough, endured another disappointing day at the Tour de France on Sunday when he was one of the last riders to finish the 14th stage.
The Cofidis rider finished the tough 191.5-km Pyrenean stage 32 minutes and 56 seconds behind winner Gilberto Simoni, dropping nine places to 29th in the overall standings.
Asked how he felt, Millar, wearing a tracksuit and woolly hat, replied: "A lot worse, my vocabulary's insufficient. The last three days have been terrible. I'll soldier on."
To add insult to injury, the 26-year-old was fined 100 Swiss francs (US$73) by the Tour judges for not signing on before the start of the stage.
Millar's woes began on the opening day's prologue when his chain came off close to the finish of the 6.5-km course, costing him victory. The Briton, who won the prologue in 2000, finished second behind Australia's Bradley McGee.
Millar woke up with a sore throat on Wednesday's rest day and has been taking antibiotics for the infection.
"I've been sick since the rest day and couldn't breath," he said after Friday's time trial in which he finished seventh.
Trio gear up for closest Tour for years
LOUDENVIELLE, France (Reuters) -- A week before the curtain falls on the centenary Tour de France, three men are gearing up for one of the closest finales in the race's history.
Everybody expected American Lance Armstrong, peerless since 1999, to comfortably add a record-equalling fifth Tour win to his collection on Sunday in Paris.
Yet only 15 seconds separate the race leader from Jan Ullrich of Germany, while Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov is now just three seconds further back in the overall standings.
When the route was unveiled last October, the shorter time trials and fewer mountain finishes looked destined to make the race a tighter affair.
But nobody, and probably not even Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc, would have believed that Armstrong's fate could be decided on the penultimate day, in a 49 km time trial.
The Texan himself had hoped for an easier time.
"As I said before the start in Paris, I knew it was gonna be close. I probably did not expect it to come down to the last decisive time trial for the Tour to be decided," Armstrong said.
"I have only a 15 seconds edge and I could lose 16 seconds in the time trial and lose the closest Tour de France in history," he suggested.
Armstrong had always singled out Ullrich as his main rival.
But after beating him twice in 2000 and 2001, and given the 1997 Tour winner's 14-month absence through injury and a doping ban, the American was probably not expecting him to be this close.
The German Olympic champion, a gifted rider who for years had failed to make the most of his talent, simply demolished Armstrong in the first time trial at Cap Decouverte on Friday, leaving him 1:36 adrift.
There is no reason to believe the outcome will be any different on Saturday in the 49 km timed test between Pornic and Nantes, a day before the return to Paris and the final dash down the Champs Elysees.
If the gap between the two should remain unchanged before next Saturday, Ullrich will probably win the Tour.
Monday's 159.5-km 15th stage to Luz-Ardiden could be crucial as it might well be Armstrong's last chance to increase his lead before the final battle.
Unfortunately for him, the American was also beaten by the German in Saturday's first Pyrenees stage at Ax-3 Domaines and Ullrich looks unlikely to be dropped in a climb by the Armstrong of 2003.
Armstrong is convinced he can still get the better of his rival in the long stretch along the mouth of the Loire river on the penultimate day.
"I won the second time trial in the past four Tours and I see no reason why it shouldn't be the case again," he said.
If the defending champion had picked Ullrich as a potential opponent, he had certainly not counted Vinokourov among his major rivals.
But the Kazakh Olympic bronze medallist, winner of Paris-Nice, the Tour of Switzerland and the Amstel Gold race this season, attacked from day one and was especially impressive in the mountains, winning a stage in Gap.
The Telekom leader lost two minutes on Armstrong and Ullrich in the first time trial and should not be a match next time around.
But Vinokourov can be expected to attack again on Monday and also later in the week to try and upset the leading pair before their final showdown.
Indeed, the race could yet be decided on the last day, as in 1989, when American Greg LeMond beat France's Laurent Fignon by eight seconds for the closest Tour finish ever.
Another dramatic finish would also be an ideal way to celebrate a century of the Tour.
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