Armstrong defends lead; Vinokourov closes inPosted: Sunday July 20, 2003 11:00 AM
Updated: Sunday July 20, 2003 3:14 PM
LOUDENVIELLE-LE LOURON, France (AP) -- The Tour de France is going so badly for Lance Armstrong that he's starting to talk about the almost unthinkable: losing.
With Armstrong still not firing on all cylinders, rising star Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan took advantage Sunday, pulling away from the four-time champion in the last lung-burning climb.
Having started the day 61 seconds back, Vinokourov closed his gap with overall leader Armstrong to just 18 seconds. That leaves him, Armstrong and 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, just 15 seconds back, locked in a suspenseful battle with only six days of racing to the winner's podium in Paris.
Since three Alpine stages a week ago, Armstrong has complained about his form and a crushing heat wave that has scorched the Tour. Instead of being his usual dominant self, he's struggled to stay a whisker ahead of his rivals.
"Something's not going right and there's nothing I can do about that now. All I can do is wake up every morning and do my best," Armstrong said. "I'm not going to cry and whine. I'm just going to do my best."
Cutting his losses, Armstrong stuck with Ullrich, letting Vinokourov power ahead up the 1,563-meter (5,158-foot) Col de Peyresourde pass, the last of six climbs that made Sunday one of the hardest of four stages in the Pyrenees.
"It's obvious that I'm not riding as well as I have in the years past. I can't exactly say why," Armstrong said. "I'm still not 100 percent and when you're lacking and when you're missing form, you've just got to rough it."
Vinokourov placed sixth in the 191.5-kilometer (119-mile) stage, 43 seconds ahead of both Armstrong and Ullrich. They finished 11th and 12th, 1 minute, 24 seconds behind stage winner Gilberto Simoni of Italy. Ullrich's 15-second deficit to Armstrong overall did not change.
Armstrong has just two more days in the mountains that separate France and Spain and an individual time trial to the town of Nantes next Saturday, the day before the Tour ends, to distance Vinokourov and Ullrich.
By this stage in previous years, Armstrong had a comfortable lead. Now in uncharted territory, the 31-year-old Texan faces the prospect of being unable to equal Spanish great Miguel Indurain's record of five successive victories.
"I knew it was going to be close. I probably didn't expect it to come down to the last few decisive stages -- two days in the mountains here ... and then the final time trial," he said.
"If we get to Nantes and I have 15 seconds and I lose by 16, you know it will go down as the closest Tour de France in history and I'll go home and have a cold beer and come back next year."
Monday's stage to Luz-Ardiden has two monstrous climbs and could be crucial. Vinokourov said he was confident he can take the overall lead.
"It's still doable," said the soft-spoken 29-year-old rider for Team Telekom. "It's always a dream, I believed I would today, but there remains another hard stage tomorrow."
But Armstrong said he still regards Ullrich as his key rival.
"He's strong, so you have to wait until you see a weakness or a weak moment and so far I haven't seen that," he said. On the climb to Luz-Ardiden, "if I feel good I will probably attack," he added.
Armstrong said he felt better Sunday than a day earlier, when he was still recovering from a time trial on Friday in which Ullrich took a giant chunk from his overall lead.
"Yesterday was a bit of a crisis after the disaster of the time trial," Armstrong said. "Today was good. Tomorrow is important -- it's my big stage."
Simoni, Sunday's winner, took 5 hours, 31 minutes and 52 seconds to cover the jagged route from Saint-Girons to Loudenvielle-Le Louron, with six mountain passes over 1,000 meters (3,300 feet).
Simoni, this year's Giro d'Italia winner, had styled himself as a challenger to Armstrong but has since had a disastrous Tour. He said he fell ill early on and that his coach had urged him to pull out Saturday.
"Today's win erases the fatigue and suffering of the past days," he said. "I am somebody who never gives up."