Armstrong routs rivals in mountain climb |

Armstrong routs rivals in mountain climb

Andrew Hood, Special to the Post Independent

LUZ ARDIDEN, France – Lance Armstrong proved he has more lives than a cat Monday, relaunching his bid for a record-tying fifth Tour de France with a dramatic stage win to this famous ski station high in the French Pyrenees. Armstrong brushed off a stunning collision with a fan high in the mist-covered French Pyrenees to win his first stage of the 2003 Tour, tightening his grip on the race leader’s yellow jersey with just a week of racing left.

“This has been a Tour of too many problems,” said Armstrong, who widened his lead over second-place Jan Ullrich from 15 seconds to a minute, 7 seconds. “Too many close-calls, too many near-misses. It seems like a lifetime’s worth.”

Dodging bullets

Armstrong has been dodging bullets since the Tour started, but Monday’s epic stage saw the 31-year-old Texan at his best when the chips are down.

Armstrong was scrambling to attack late in the epic 99-mile stage when he eased too close to rowdy fans lining the narrow mountain road and hooked his right handlebar on a bag a fan was waving in front of the passing riders.

Armstrong’s handlebars shot to the right, and the four-time Tour champion was thrown hard to the ground, landing violently on the upper left side of his back. Spanish rider Iban Mayo was right on Armstrong’s wheel and also crashed while Ullrich swerved to narrowly avoid falling.

“It was my fault for riding too close to the right side of the road,” said Armstrong after scoring his 16th career Tour stage victory. “I had a huge rush of adrenaline. I said to myself, `Lance, today is the day. If you want to win the Tour, you’ve got to attack.'”

Armstrong quickly remounted his bicycle without major injury and chased back to the lead group of riders, who were waiting for Armstrong in a sporting gesture. Armstrong waited for Ullrich in a similar situation when the German crashed in the 2001 Tour.

“I’m really grateful for Jan for remembering my gesture of two years ago. What goes around, comes around,” said Armstrong, who finished 40 seconds ahead of Mayo.

“The tables were turned two years ago when I did what I did. I appreciated he did what he did today.”

Armstrong then went on the attack again, but nearly crashed a second time when his right pedal slipped out with a strong acceleration and he wobbled on the bike. When Armstrong finally got things under control, he looked like the same rider who’s soared to four consecutive Tour victories.

Using his trademark high-cadence pedaling style, Armstrong dropped Ullrich and zipped past Sylvain Chavanel, a French rider who broke away early, and scored the win.

`I was a little desperate’

But even Armstrong admits he’s not the same rider he’s been since his dramatic 1999 cancer comeback. Problems that have dogged him since the prologue start July 5 in Paris compounded to a near-crisis when soaring heat sapped his strength Friday and Saturday.

“I wasn’t angry when I attacked. I was a little desperate. I knew I needed to make up some time to Ullrich before the time trial,” Armstrong said. “I’ve had a lot of strange things happen on this Tour, some things that I haven’t even talked about. It’s been a very odd, crisis-filled Tour.”

With a week remaining in the Tour, Armstrong is sitting more comfortably than he was just 24 hours ago, when Ullrich and third-place Alexandre Vinokourov of Telekom were breathing down his neck, both within just 18 seconds.

Ullrich couldn’t match Armstrong’s pace, but stayed close to finish third while Vinokourov suffered and fell out of contention at 2:45 back.

“I pushed Jan hard today to stay as close as he could to not lose too much time,” said Rudy Pevenage, director of Ullrich’s Team Bianchi. “This is a different Lance Armstrong than we’ve seen in the past. With just 1:07, everything is possible. The match is set for Saturday.”

Waiting now for Saturday

The Tour catches its breath Tuesday with the final rest day before heading into the Pyrenees one more time during Wednesday’s 16th stage. The mountains come early in that stage before a long, rolling flat into Bayonne, so all eyes are already looking ahead to Saturday’s final individual time trial.

Ullrich took 1:36 out of Armstrong in the Cap Decouverte time trial Friday, and the Tour’s final race against the clock is longer and flatter.

Armstrong is hopeful he won’t have anymore fireworks before then.

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