Postal preps for Tour’s second half
Special to the Post Independent
NARBONNE, France – Lance Armstrong has owned the Tour de France for four years in a row. But midway through his quest to win a record-tying fifth, the 31-year-old Texan seems vulnerable and his rivals can smell blood.
Has Super Lance become just another racer? Some think so.
“Armstrong doesn’t look as strong as he has before. I think he can lose,” said Enzue Usebio, director of the Spanish Banesto team. “He’s back to the same level as everyone else. He’s no longer super-human.”
Since his dramatic cancer comeback in 1999, Armstrong has roared up the Tour’s first mountain stages and gained so much time he’s converted the three-week race into a battle for second place.
Eight within three minutes
Although Armstrong rolled out of three grueling days in the Alps with the race leader’s yellow jersey, eight riders stand within three minutes of Armstrong – considered within easy striking distance with half the Tour still ahead.
“People think that he’s not as strong as he has been because he wasn’t able to make big time differences in the Alps like he has in the past,” said Spanish rider Iban Mayo, a dangerous rival sitting in third at 1 minute, 2 seconds. “After the time trial, if he’s not strong like other years, everyone will be attacking hard in the Pyrenees.”
Armstrong enjoyed Wednesday’s rest day holding onto the yellow jersey by 21 seconds over second-place Alexandre Vinokourov, his narrowest margin to key rivals in five years. A quirky combination of the 2003 Tour’s layout, some pre-race jitters and exceptionally fit opponents has added up to turn the centenary Tour into Armstrong’s most difficult and most thrilling.
“It’s normal that people say Lance is beatable,” said Dirk Demol, assistant director at Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. “Everything is open in the Tour.”
“I am perhaps not as strong as the other years,” Armstrong admitted after the epic stage to Alpe d’Huez on Sunday, when he let Mayo slip away for the victory. “I do feel a year older, a few more gray hairs. Maybe I get out of bed a little slower (now), but I still feel strong.”
American Tyler Hamilton, meanwhile, has become one of the inspiration stories of the 2003 Tour de France, not only for his grit and determination to press on despite fracturing his right collarbone in the Tour’s first stage, but because he’s riding with the best.
Despite the pain and discomfort, Hamilton rolled out of the Alps sitting in fifth place overall at 1:52 back. He said the reaction from fellow racers has been positive.
“Most people tell me I’m crazy,” Hamilton said in a rest day press conference. “There have been a lot of people coming up to me, showing a lot of respect, saying how tough I am. I’ve never had anybody coming up to me and questioning whether or not I have a broken collarbone.”
Hamilton said he’s still taking the Tour “day-to-day.”
“The hardest part is waking up in the morning when I am really stiff,” said Hamilton, who said he’s feeling a new pain in his back. “I’ve been able to do my own race. I’ve had a hard time getting up out of the saddle accelerating. Compared to the Giro, it’s a little bit more difficult.”
Time trial Friday
All eyes now are looking to Friday’s 29.14-mile race against the clock. Armstrong has paid special attention to his time-trial training this year and will ride a new bike specially designed to help him reduce wind resistance.
While it-s not a classic flat course that favors Armstrong against the climbers, it’s an essential stage for Armstrong to mark important time differences.
Starting Saturday, the Tour hits four brutal climbing stages in the Pyrenees spread over five days.
If Armstrong cannot widen his gap with an impressive ride Friday, the Spanish riders will be gunning for all their worth in the steep, narrow roads in the Pyrenees.
Tens of thousands of boisterous Spanish fans are expected to pour over the border to cheer on Mayo, Francisco Mancebo, fourth at 1:37 back, and a horde of Basque climbers on the Spanish Euskaltel team.
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