Despite a long attack by Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong keeps his cool to win the stage into Villard d
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE An extremely unpredictable stage from Valras to Villard de Lans ended very predictably when Lance Armstrong underlined that he is the strongest rider in the Tour by taking victory in the ski resort, outsprinting the ever-present Ivan Basso and T-Mobile duo Jan Ullrich and Andreas Kloeden. The race lead also went to the Texan as plucky Thomas Voeckler came in almost 10 minutes down and slipped to eighth place overall. The finale provided a fitting ending to another high-speed stage. Ten riders came to the foot of the final two-kilometre climb to the finish, with numbers favouring CSC, who had Carlos Sastre and Jens Voigt setting the pace for Basso. But this pair had already done a huge amount of work on the front of the race and were the first two dropped. Postal pace-maker Jos Azevedo was the next to fall back, followed by long-time breakaways Michael Rasmussen and Richard Virenque, who had been caught on the penultimate of the day’s six climbs. That left five with less than a kilometre to the line, but Rabobank’s Levi Leipheimer slid off the back of the string, perhaps feeling the effects of an attack he had made on Armstrong’s group a few kilometres before. The final four reached the final crest about 300 metres from the line with Kloeden and Ullrich leading and the fresher looking Basso and Armstrong waiting to pounce. The Italian went first, but Armstrong’s pre-race planning seemed to pay dividends as he took the inside line on the Italian into a sharp left-hander and came out of it with enough momentum and sprinting speed to take his 18th Tour stage win and assure himself of a 61st day in the yellow jersey. T-Mobile’s near-miss was compensated somewhat by Kloeden establishing a good advantage over the chasing pack for the third place on the podium as Francisco Mancebo lost a couple of minutes. The stage was lively right from the off, and the bunch split as early as the day’s second climb. A large group went clear on the next hill, the second-cat Limouches, and Stuart O’Grady attacked from it on the subsequent descent with his eyes on the sprint points available in the valley below. Thor Hushovd tried to follow, but could not get up to the Australian before the day’s second and final sprint. Both riders nudged themselves closer to Robbie McEwen in the points competition. Rasmussen and Virenque surged clear of the rest of the breakaways on the next mountain, the first-cat Echarasson, but there was a huge surprise a couple of minutes behind them when Ullrich attacked the Armstrong group after some fast pace-making by Giuseppe Guerini had forced a lot of riders to fall back. Looking better than he has since last year’s race, Ullrich even got out of the saddle a few times to keep his speed high and quickly got a minute clear of Armstrong’s group, led by Floyd Landis. With more than 50 kilometres to go and just two team-mates to call on, it seemed Armstrong might have to respond himself before too much longer. But rescue came in the large shape of Jens Voigt, who was instructed to stop chasing for the stage win behind Rasmussen and Virenque and drop back to pace the Armstrong/Basso group back up to Ullrich. Although CSC team boss Bjarne Riis has been talking about Basso not giving up hope of winning the Tour, releasing US Postal from the hardship of pace-making did not appear to be the way to do it. TV pictures of a note being passed from a US Postal to a CSC team car only increased the intrigue. Ullrich was reeled in on the penultimate climb, and the status quo returned. Or for a while it did. Near the summit of that second-cat hill, just as Virenque and Rasmussen were coming into sight of Armstrong’s group, Levi Leipheimer attacked. Once again, it was CSC rather than Postal who did the chasing to protect Basso’s second place. So much for putting Lance and his team on the back foot.