Armstrong rests easy as end draws near
Special to the Post Independent
PAU, France – With one more hard stage on tap in the mountains before a string of rolling stages winding north toward Paris, the Tour de France collected its breath Tuesday after a string of spectacular stages through the French Pyrenees.
And what a difference a rest day can make for Lance Armstrong and his quest to win a record-tying fifth Tour de France.
Before Monday’s breakthrough victory, Armstrong was struggling to find the winning form that launched him to four consecutive victories in what has become known in some circles as the “Tour de Lance.” Twenty-four hours later, the 31-year-old Texan woke up for Tuesday’s rest day with a comfortable lead over rival Jan Ullrich and five days of racing standing between him and Paris.
“This Tour is far from over, but we’re more comfortable now where we are,” said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. “As this Tour has shown, anything can happen, but we have more of a margin, and that’s good.”
`I still don’t believe in bad luck’
Armstrong has endured one harrowing misadventure after another in his quest to equal cycling’s benchmark of greatness, but he refuses to believe that luck is against him. The Texan was hobbled by stomach problems before the prologue in Paris on July 5 and suffered intense dehydration in his loss in last Friday’s time trial when a French heat wave sent temperatures soaring into the high 90s.
“I don’t think it was anything to do with bad luck,” Armstrong said about his spectacular crash that sent him sprawling to the ground in Monday’s epic stage. “Even after all the things that have happened in this Tour, I still don’t believe in bad luck.”
Armstrong entered Monday’s decisive climbing stage to Luz Ardiden with Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov breathing down his neck, both within 18 seconds of Armstrong’s hold of the race leader’s yellow jersey.
But things were looking up Monday morning when Armstrong saw clouds rolling over the rocky summits of the French Pyrenees to cool things down.
“In the morning, Lance said, `I think I’m coming back.’ At the team briefing, I told the team we have to race to win,” Bruyneel said.
“It was truly our first good day in the Tour since the team time trial,” Bruyneel continued. “We know Jan will be strong in the final time trial, but I’m glad we have 1 minute, 7 seconds instead of just 15 seconds we had when the day started.”
Tour turning point
Armstrong’s victory Monday was the turning point of the 2003 Tour, and he enters the Tour’s final five stages with a delicate but solid lead over Ullrich and Vinokourov, who are all but eliminated as a threat for final victory.
On Tuesday, the mood was buoyant at U.S. Postal’s team hotel in Pau. The team went for a 50-mile training ride and otherwise enjoyed a relaxing day away from the pressures of the Tour.
Team spokesman Jogi Mueller said Armstrong slept well Monday night and didn’t show any signs of major injury from his crash when his handlebars tangled up with a fan’s bag and was sent toppling to the ground.
“The team staff checked him out, but he looks great and he’s feeling good after the big ride Monday,” Mueller said. “He didn’t feel worse overnight, so that’s a good sign because normally if you’re hurt in a crash, you feel it the next morning.”
Another time trial looms
Today’s final mountain stage likely won’t see too much of a shake up in the overall standings because the final mountain passes come too far from the finish line in Bayonne. With rolling stages Thursday and Friday well suited for the sprinters, the balance of the Tour will likely come down to Saturday’s 30-mile time trial from Pornic to Nantes.
Even Ullrich, who’s defied expectations to hound Armstrong throughout the Tour’s first 15 stages, admits it will be a challenge to overcome Armstrong.
“To sum it up, Lance Armstrong should win the Tour, and I could win,” Ullrich said. “Everything is possible, and I’m still very motivated about going for the final victory.”
Armstrong is quietly confident he will be able to deliver final victory and he has history on his side. In each of his four Tour victories, Armstrong has won the final time trial that’s traditionally held on the Tour’s penultimate day.
“The Tour is never over until the final lap on the Champs Elysees,” Armstrong insists. “But I’ve always done well in the final time trial.”
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