Lance strikes hard but Basso responds

Lance Armstrong shakes off almost all of his rivals at La Mongie, but the stubborn Ivan Basso takes

Lance Armstrong shakes off almost all of his rivals at La Mongie, but the stubborn Ivan Basso takes
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Just as he did two years ago, Lance Armstrong went mano a mano on the climb up to the La Mongie ski station, with the Joseba Beloki role being filled in this instance by the rather surprising figure of Ivan Basso. Unlike Beloki, who ultimately failed to match the Texan, the Italian proved completely unshakeable, tracking Armstrong's every move and thrust and eventually attacking in the last 100 metres to win his first Tour de France stage and, more importantly, establish himself as one of Armstrong's main rivals for the yellow jersey. Although today's battle went Basso's way, the overall war moved significantly the way of Armstrong. Of the riders most often mentioned as his potential rivals this year, only Iban Mayo finished in the top 10 at La Mongie, and even the Basque was forced to add another minute to his already substantial deficit. But others fared worse, much worse. Not far behind the leading pair there was a T-Mobile rider, but who would have predicted it to be Andreas Kloeden rather than Jan Ullrich? While Kloeden looked comfortable for most of the final climb and finished just 20 seconds behind Basso and Armstrong, his team leader Ullrich struggled up most of the final 10 kilometres on the wheel of team-mate Giuseppe Guerini to lose 2-30 on the day. Phonak, too, had riders well placed, but team leader Tyler Hamilton was not amongst them. He was one of first major names dropped and eventually trailed in 3-27 down, not too far ahead of yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler. The young Frenchman rode courageously again and goes into Saturday's seven-climb Pyrenean epic with an advantage of 5-24 over Armstrong. The defending champion has taken a hammering in the press over recent weeks, and especially in the last couple of days. A widespread feeling that it would be his rivals on the road who would pay the price proved correct, and in this he was helped substantially by his team-mates. After a kamikaze break was caught early on the Aspin, the first climb of the day, Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen pushed ahead on his own as the morning sun disappeared behind storm clouds and the rain started to come down. Rasmussen went over the climb first and began the ascent to La Mongie with a narrow lead over a US Postal-led chasing group. The pace-making by Benjamin Noval and then George Hincapie was phenomenal, and too much for Hamilton. After Rasmussen had been caught, Jos Azevedo went through his paces as the front group was whittled down to a handful of riders. CSC have promised a lot but produced little so far, but that was about to change as Carlos Sastre attacked the leaders. Soon after, Azevedo faded and Armstrong took up the pace-making himself, with Basso right on his wheel. Paco Mancebo attempted to escape these two, but they quickly swept by the Spaniard and were soon up to Sastre. Where Armstrong had had team-mate Roberto Heras to help fend off Beloki in 2002, this time he was alone against two CSC riders. Although Sastre soon faded back towards the chasers, Basso stuck with him like glue and eventually jumped by to cast off his mantle as a persistently plucky loser.
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