As Lance Armstrong takes the stage at Plateau de Beille, only Ivan Basso appears to offer any threat
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Anyone who watched this afternoon’s 13th stage of the Tour and thought they were seeing a re-run of the 2002 race would not be too far off the mark. Although Lance Armstrong did not win yesterday’s stage to La Mongie as he did two years ago, he was not far off, and he made up for that today by repeating his 2002 victory at Plateau de Beille. Apart from the fact that Armstrong failed to wrest the yellow jersey from the hugely courageous Thomas Voeckler, the only significant difference between this year’s run through the Pyrenees and that of two years ago is the obstinate and unshakeable presence of Ivan Basso. The Italian, who won yesterday, stuck with Armstrong again today until the last few metres when the US Postal team leader jumped past him for the win. If it wasn’t for Basso, the Tour would be looking forward to a very predictable final week. While the Italian rose to the occasion as much as Armstrong and his superlative team did, most of the opposition melted away. Early in the day Haimar Zubeldia, fifth last year, and Denis Menchov, 2003’s best young rider, abandoned with knee trouble. Almost unbelievably given the way he has refused to give in to pain in recent major tours, Tyler Hamilton quit as well soon after the first feed. The back trouble that has been troubling him since a crash in the first week proved too much on this occasion. More mysterious, though, was the failure of a string of high-profile contenders to feature at all. The Basque hordes may have been disappointed to hear Zubeldia had pulled out before reaching them today, but not as much as they would have been to see their idol Iban Mayo climbing the Plateau de Beille in the ‘bus’. At one point it looked as if Mayo was doing a ‘Simoni’ and refusing to carry on until one of his directeurs intervened. Roberto Heras was another Spaniard who failed to make any impact, although he did crash on the descent from the Col de la Core, the third of seven climbs, and struggled to follow the pace from that point. Such was the show of force produced by the US Postal team to the foot of the Plateau de Beille that many riders in a group about 40-strong that reached the final climb two and a half minutes behind long-time breakaways Jens Voigt and Michael Rasmussen were clearly struggling, none more so than yellow jersey Voeckler, who kept rubbing his dodgy stomach and smiling at the camera through gritted teeth. George Hincapie led this group onto the final hill at a frighteningly fast pace, before pulling aside to let Chechu Rubiera through. Richard Virenque and Oscar Sevilla were among those quickly dropped. Christophe Moreau suffered a very untimely rear wheel puncture and got a wheel from Alexandre Botcharov, then spent a minute trying to fit it, though still managed to finish eighth. Voeckler was dropped as well and fell back to team-mate Sylvain Chavanel, who set the pace for a while. With 12 kilometres still to the summit it looked like the young Frenchman’s days in yellow were over. Soon after Rubiera pulled aside to let Jos Azevedo do the pace-making for Armstrong, first Voigt and then Rasmussen were caught and passed. What had been a bunch was by now a small group and the next casualty was Jan Ullrich. At the 10-kilometre banner only Basso was still with the US Postal duo at the front. Azevedo stuck to his task until seven kilometres from the end, leaving Armstrong and Basso to climb the rest of the mountain together. Neither made an obvious attack until Armstrong made his jump for the stage win. Both seemed content to cooperate and distance everyone else. The rest were led in by the often overlooked figure of Georg Totschnig, and behind the Austrian Andreas Kloeden and Paco Mancebo both rode well and into contention for a podium spot. Ullrich dropped 2-42 in finishing sixth. Apart from Basso, the only defiance of Armstrong’s dominance came from Voeckler, who produced the ride of his life to hang on to the yellow jersey. Clearly in trouble for much of the day, he simply refused to give in. With his jersey fully unzipped and swaying from side to side as he bobbed up and down on the pedals, he kept losing momentum, then accelerating again all the way up the climb. It was hardly energy efficient, but was certainly effective. He crossed the line punching the air in 13th place and the jersey still his by just 22 seconds. Hopefully he will keep it as far as Alpe d’Huez and get the chance to take a parade of honour up those famous hairpins.