Lance Armstrong crushes his rivals on Alpe d’Huez and now looks odds on for a historic sixth Tour ti
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Just before Lance Armstrong went under the two-kilometre-to-go banner on Alpe d’Huez a message painted in huge block letters on the road told him to ‘Rip Their Balls Off Lance’. By the time he had reached that point in today’s 15.5-kilometre time trial, he had well and truly done so, most obviously in the case of Ivan Basso, who had just been caught for two minutes a few hundred metres down the road. It was no wonder Basso and his CSC team manager Bjarne Riis were thinking so much of second place during yesterday’s stage. When he crossed the line a couple of kilometres up the road, his face set with a rictus grin of pain as he sprinted for every second he could, Armstrong took this key stage by a staggering 1-01 from Jan Ullrich, whose time had seemed pretty stunning itself just 10 minutes or so beforehand. It was fitting that Armstrong’s mark of 39-41 was the only one under the 40-minute mark as this underlined he had been a class apart coming up through the Alpe’s famous hairpins. Much has been made of Armstrong and his team-mates riding the Alpe over and over in preparation for today, but there was no way anyone could have prepared for the mass of humanity forming a narrow and often frighteningly encroaching corridor most of the way up the climb. Armstrong said afterwards he felt it would be a mistake to have another time trial up the mountain in the future, recognising that his main danger was a coming-together with someone in the crowd rather than the riders vainly trying to make inroads into his lead. Last off as the race leader, Armstrong looked impressively smooth and quick all the way up the climb. His advantage over second-placed Basso began to rise from the start and soared by the time the American had knocked 40 seconds off Ullrich’s fastest time at the 9.5-kilometre split. The only moment his momentum seemed to slow slightly was when he caught Basso, who had been rocking wearily for the previous couple of kilometres. The pair have spent a lot of time riding together during the race, and Armstrong almost seemed to be trying to pace the Italian for a while, before pressing relentlessly on again. In the end Basso came in a disappointing eighth, losing the thick end of a minute to Andreas Kloeden, who finished third behind Ullrich and is now just 1-15 off Basso’s second place. As he showed yesterday, Ullrich is a different rider in the Alps to the one we saw in the Pyrenees. He opted to ride with a set of mini tri-bars, which seemed a strange choice given there were only 1,500 metres of flat road at the start. But he stuck with them on the climb to good effect, and he may yet give his T-Mobile team their first win of this race before Paris is reached. While Armstrong’s grip on the yellow jersey now looks unbreakable, his predecessor as leader, Thomas Voeckler, is looking very uncertain in the white jersey of best young rider. Russia’s Vladimir Karpets gained well over four minutes on the Frenchman today and now looks a better bet for that prize.