Friday, July 23, 2004

Armstrong keeps rolling

Wild dash to the finish in sprint results in sweet victory

By John Leicester
The Associated Press

Lance Armstrong (center) won Thursday's stage of the Tour de France and is 4 minutes, 9 seconds ahead of his closest competitor.
The Associated Press/BERNARD PAPON
LE GRAND-BORNAND, France - Overpowering in the mountains, now unbeatable in a sprint. Seems there's nothing Lance Armstrong can't do as he rides inexorably into Tour de France history, utterly outclassing his rivals.

With a stunning final dash, Armstrong snatched victory from German Andreas Kloden at the end of the Tour's hardest Alpine stage, pedaling so furiously that his bicycle swung wildly beneath him.

The win Thursday was Armstrong's fourth this Tour - matching his best in previous years when he also dominated - and his third in three consecutive race days, allowing him to all but lock up a record sixth straight crown.

It also was perhaps the most incredible. Even Armstrong seemed to find his sprint finish hard to believe.

A brief look at Thursday's 17th stage of the Tour de France:

Stage: A 126.8-mile Alpine trek from Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand Bornand.

Winner: Lance Armstrong, United States, US Postal-Berry Floor, in 6 hours, 11 minutes, 52 seconds.

How Others Fared: German Andreas Kloden was second in the same time; 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, a German on the T-Mobile team, was third, a second behind. Italian Ivan Basso, of Team CSC, placed fourth in the same time as Ullrich.

Yellow Jersey: Armstrong.

Quote of the Day: "No gifts this year. I want to win." - five-time Tour champion Armstrong.

Next Stage: Today's 18th stage is a hilly 103.2-mile trek from Annemasse to Lons-le-Saunier with no major climbs.

Aside from satisfaction, the victory earned Armstrong 20 bonus seconds that helped extend his overall lead on Italian Ivan Basso to 4 minutes, 9 seconds. Barring disaster, that is more than enough to carry the Texan through to the finish in Paris on Sunday to become the only six-time winner of the 101-year-old cycling marathon.

"Sweet," he told teammate Floyd Landis as they hugged at the finish.

Armstrong's original plan had been to let Landis win. But the chance for a 20th career individual victory in his favorite cycling race was too good to pass up.

At the top of the last of five climbs on the 126.8-mile trek through the Alps, Armstrong reached an arm over to Landis and told him to try for what would have been his first victory. The finish was eight miles away.

"I said, 'How bad do you want to win a stage in the Tour de France?' He said, 'Real bad,' " Armstrong recounted later. "I said, 'How fast can you go downhill?' and he said, 'I go downhill real fast.' He said, 'Can I do it?' And I said, 'Sure you can do it.' Then I told him, 'Run like you stole something, Floyd.' "

Landis zoomed away but was quickly caught by German Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's big rival. Armstrong laid chase, followed by Basso and Kloden. Together, Ullrich, Basso and Kloden had been the only riders able to stay with the two Americans on the last climb up the Col de la Croix Fry.

Hurtling toward the finish, the five riders eyed each other and jostled for position.

Just after they passed under a blue inflatable arch marking 1/2 mile to go, Kloden spurted ahead to build a slight lead through the final corners.

But then, when it was almost too late, Armstrong hit the highest of his many gears. With a final glance over his shoulder and within sight of the line, he rocketed off in pursuit and found just enough speed to beat Kloden by a whisker.

"Something came over me and I said, 'OK. I have to go for it. To get to win in the sprints is exciting,' " Armstrong said. "When I first started I thought, 'I'm not going to catch 'em.' ... But the finish line was far enough away that I made it through."

He dedicated his win to Landis, who led his boss up the grinding final climb "I really wanted him to win the stage," Armstrong said. "But it didn't work out that way."

When they hugged at the finish still perched atop their bikes, Landis told Armstrong: "I couldn't go any more."

Armstrong will be a favorite to take a fifth stage win, a record for him in one Tour, in a time trial Saturday that will cement the top placings before Sunday's ride to Paris.

Most riders treat the last stage as a lap of honor. Last year, Armstrong sipped champagne as he pedaled.

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