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As so often in the past, the Tour's first big day in the mountains saw Lance Armstrong impose himself on his main rivals in hugely impressive fashion. Although the Discovery Channel team leader was outsprinted at the summit finish in Courchevel by Illes Balears' Alejandro Valverde, both he and his team will be extremely satisfied with the gaps behind this pair to the Texan's principal rivals.
King of the Mountains leader Michael Rasmussen and Valverde's pained-looking team-mate Paco Mancebo were only dropped in the final sprint for the line, but they were the exception. Ivan Basso was the last big name to fall away and came in 1-02 down, with the grittily determined Levi Leipheimer not far behind him. But T-Mobile were well off the pace that Armstrong and his Discovery team-mates imposed. Jan Ullrich was led in by Andreas Kloeden 2-14 down, while Alexandre Vinokourov dropped out of the back of the lead group 12km from the finish.
Overall, Armstrong is now is in a very strong position going into another tough Alpine day tomorrow to Briancon, taking in the Madeleine and Galibier. With former yellow jersey Jens Voigt finishing well down as expected, Armstrong is back in pole position; his closest challenger is Rasmussen, just 38 seconds down, with Basso third at 2-40. Valverde, at 3-16 in fifth place, must still be rated a significant threat, but all of the other pretenders to Armstrong's crown are four or more minutes back.
The stage began quickly, with a group of seven riders coming together after an attack in the first kilometre. None were highly placed, and their lead quickly ballooned to 11 minutes. Climbing the first-cat Cormet de Roselend the group split. When Laurent Brochard led four others over the summit, the peloton was just 3-40 down, with Jorg Jaksche and Oscar Pereiro in between.
Apart from a fall by Yaroslav Popovych on the descent of the Roselend, Discovery were untroubled. Pavel Padrnos and Benjamin Noval set the pace on the front of the main peloton, cutting lumps out of the advantage held by the riders ahead.
Jaksche, Pereiro and Brochard led the race onto the 22km climb to Courchevel, but the German Jaksche was soon on his own, with the Discovery-led peloton now just two minutes down. Their pace was initially set by Paolo Savoldelli, and it was fast enough to see all kinds of names drop out of the back of the main peloton. Iban Mayo and Brad McGee were the first, but Roberto Heras, Joseba Beloki, Christophe Moreau, Michael Rogers and many others soon went the same way.
Jos Luis Rubiera took over the pace-making and the phenomenal speed was maintained. CSC's Carlos Sastre tried an attack to disrupt things but only got 50 metres ahead of the Discovery string. The Spaniard quickly slipped back out of the group. Jos Azevedo took over, then George Hincapie, then the dirt-covered Popovych.
By this stage Vinokourov had been swinging on the back of the line for a few hundred metres. Was it a bluff? Emphatically not. With 11km to go, Armstrong pulled alongside his Ukrainian team-mate, said something, and Popovych started what was pretty much a full-on sprint up the mountain. It didn't last long, but it was enough to see off Ullrich, Kloeden, Leipheimer and Floyd Landis.
When Popovych pulled aside, Armstrong persisted with the pace-making and before too long had just Rasmussen, Valverde, Mancebo, Basso and the resilient Cadel Evans for company. Jaksche was caught during this flurry and slotted into this group for a while.
Mancebo came through to help Armstrong with the pace-making, knowing that this was his best chance so far of making a strong move towards the Tour's podium. Armstrong was soon back at the front, though, and the pace went up again, and this time Evans couldn't stay with it. And this was how it continued: Armstrong riding hard, then calling the others through, then going hard again. No wonder his four companions looked reluctant to take up the pace-making. They knew what was coming after he had caught his breath.
Basso was dropped 7km from the finish, and the lead quartet pushed on again. Armstrong did the lion's share of the running, but the other three showed their faces, particularly the Illes Balears' duo. The group finally split when Rasmussen attacked 700 metres from the line. He was quickly pegged back, then went again, and was pegged again by Valverde.
Armstrong made his final move with 400 metres left down Rasmussen's blind side, along the barriers, and only Valverde had the speed left to follow. Two hundred metres from the line, the Spaniard attacked on Armstrong's left and the day was his. As Armstrong shook his hand beyond the line there was a inkling that this perhaps signalled a change of generation, although the American looks far too strong to allow that to happen for at least another 12 days this year.
For stage results click here.
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