Armstrong back in charge as Valverde grabs stage win

Lance Armstrong might be getting older, but he’s still strong enough to put some serious hurt on the world’s best climbers when the Tour de France is on the line. The 33-year-old Texan surged back into the yellow jersey on Tuesday’s decisive climbing stage across the French Alps to Courchevel. And while he couldn’t drop everyone — Michael Rasmussen, Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo rode his vapors — he opened up important time gaps on just about everyone else. “I tried to get rid of those guys, but maybe it’s not like the old days when you make one attack and you ride them off to

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By Andrew Hood

Valverde celebrates

Valverde celebrates

Photo: AFP

Valverde nicks Armstrong at the line

Valverde nicks Armstrong at the line

Photo: AFP

Lance Armstrong might be getting older, but he’s still strong enough to put some serious hurt on the world’s best climbers when the Tour de France is on the line.

The 33-year-old Texan surged back into the yellow jersey on Tuesday’s decisive climbing stage across the French Alps to Courchevel. And while he couldn’t drop everyone — Michael Rasmussen, Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo rode his vapors — he opened up important time gaps on just about everyone else.

“I tried to get rid of those guys, but maybe it’s not like the old days when you make one attack and you ride them off to the finish,” Armstrong said. “Perhaps I’ve lost some of that explosiveness.”

The six-time Tour champ grabbed the maillot jaune from overnight leader Jens Voigt, who finished more than 30 minutes behind the leaders at the summit finish more than 6000 feet up the biggest ski mountain in the world.

“Whenever it finishes uphill, there’s nothing more important than that. Those are the days that decide history,” Armstrong said. “Those are the days that make the race.”Results are posted

The Discovery Channel train was back in fine form on the 22km-long climb to Courchevel, softening up the list of would-be pretenders to Armstrong’s Tour throne, and leaving just three aspiring new faces to follow Armstrong’s coattails to the finish.

Spanish new prince Valverde (Illes Balears) shot past Armstrong to snag the stage win in an electrifying day on the Tour. Armstrong reached out to shake his hand after they rode across the line.

“A guy like that could be the future of cycling,” said Armstrong, whose own future might include holding the yellow jersey the rest the way to Paris. “We’ll try to race smart, but one team can only do so much. Maybe I’ll be retiring in it.”

Stage 9 winner Rasmussen (Rabobank) came home in third place Tuesday and snuck into second overall, only 38 seconds back, while Mancebo (Illes Balears) gritted his teeth to finish fourth and moving to seventh overall.

Asked about Danish surprise Rasmussen, the former world mountain bike champion, Armstrong said, “He’s a damn good climber. We have to watch him now. No more seven-minute breakaways for Michael Rasmussen.”

Trail of destruction
Armstrong was comfortably back inside his protective blue-an-silver cocoon of Lycra, carbon fiber and lethal leg-power for Tuesday’s much-anticipated opening volley in the Alps. Working to well-oiled perfection, Discovery Channel left in its wake a trail of destruction and swatted away any doubts about the team’s strength following its hiccups in the Vosges last Saturday.

“It was a crisis for us for sure,” Armstrong said of stage 8 when he was left without teammates on a Cat. 2 climb. But grading his teammates’ performance at Courchevel, he said, “I would give them an ‘A’. They did everything they had to today.”

The entire team took part in setting the punishing pace. Manuel Beltrán, Pavel Padrnos and Benjamin Noval set tempo up and over the Cat. 1 Cormet de Roseland before José Luis Rubiera, José Azevedo and Paolo Savoldelli turned the screws on the final run up to Courchevel, trimming the lead group from 50 to 20 riders midway up the climb.

The unstoppable George Hincapie took his turn before heir apparent Yaroslav Popovych took the final turns, running up the speed to prime Armstrong to move front and center.

Armstrong gives Popo the word

Armstrong gives Popo the word

Photo: Graham Watson

“He wins the ‘man of the day award,’” Armstrong said of Popovych, who crashed into a Team CSC car on the Roseland descent. “I asked him to accelerate with 10km to go and that was a sprint.”

A large chunk of the peloton was hemorrhaging in the team’s wake. Several big names lost serious amounts of time, including Iban Mayo (97th at 21:31), Denis Menchov (54th at 11:51), Roberto Heras (42nd at 9:49) and Joseba Beloki (26th at 5:36).

Voight kisses the jersey goodbye

Voight kisses the jersey goodbye

Photo: Graham Watson

T-Mobile’s much-feared three-pronged attack went limp as Alex Vinokourov (24th at 5:18) and Jan Ullrich (13th at 2:14) faded out of contention on a day when they couldn’t afford it. Andreas Klöden, riding strong again, was called off the attack to help limit Ullrich’s losses.

“We were really looking forward to today’s stage, but it was too much for my legs,” said Ullrich, who crashed hard on a descent in Sunday’s stage. “My ribs were hurting today and it hurt a little to climb, but it didn’t matter. I would have lost two minutes anyway.”

Ivan Basso, last year’s third-place man and stage winner, slipped off the wheels of the four leaders with 8km to go. “It wasn’t a great day, but it wasn’t a bad day either. Everyone expected a lot from me today and so did I,” said Basso, fifth to finish 1:02 back and now third overall at 2:40. “My legs didn’t feel as good as I had hoped, but I was able to limit the damage. I rode the final 8km alone, so I had to race smart and not risk blowing up.”

Solid as a rock
The American GC riders were rock solid on the hard stage following Monday’s rest day. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) catapulted into podium range with an excellent sixth-place ride 1:15 back, chasing alone for much of the final climb and nearly catching the suffering Ivan Basso (CSC).

Valverde leads the select group

Valverde leads the select group

Photo: Graham Watson

Leipheimer moved into sixth overall, 3:58 back, just 1:18 behind third-place Basso. “It was a super ride by Levi today. He was strong like a bear,” said Gerolsteiner sport director Christian Henn. “Because of the health problems with (Georg) Totschnig, he is our lone leader now. We will take it day by day, because this is just the first hard day of the Tour. Levi was able to be with the strongest, so it’s a great start.”

Also stepping up with nice rides were Chris Horner (20th at 3:59) and Floyd Landis (11th at 2:14). Horner found a nice group that included Kim Kirchen (Fassa Bortolo) and Popovych, while Landis finished with a seven-man group that also included Ullrich, Klöden and Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto).

“Man, once they started going hard, I just had to ride my own pace. I couldn’t follow any attacks,” Landis said. “I think it was pretty much the same for everybody. I just rode my own speed the rest of the way up the climb.”

Long row to hoe
Stage 10 was shortened by 15km to 177.5km after a compromise was hashed out with protesters angry about recent wolf attacks on sheep and cow herds. They had threatened to stop the peloton mid-race and hurl cow manure on the hapless riders to drive home their point.

Race organizers lengthened the neutral start and the peloton rolled to a stop in Brignoud to allow the demonstration to occur without a stinky mess. The flag was dropped at 12:30 p.m., 30 minutes later than scheduled.

The peloton was lighter by one rider after Evgeny Petrov () was flicked from the race for testing high in pre-stage hematocrit screenings. The 2000 world under-23 champion was the only rider to get the boot out of 33 tested on four teams: Ag2r, CSC, Discovery Channel and Lampre-Caffita.

With a long day looming in the mountains, riders were anxious to get a head-start on the suffering. Dutchman Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) and Frenchman Laurent Brochard (Bouygues Télécom) ripped away in the opening kilometer. Not to miss the action, Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r) shot out from the pack. Four others sprung at 16km: Gianluca Bortolami (Lampre-Caffita), Iñaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Mauro Facci (Fassa Bortolo) and Luis León Sanchez (Liberty Seguros).

Ullrich crosses the line more than two minutes later

Ullrich crosses the line more than two minutes later

Photo: AFP

The main bunch was in no hurry and the leading seven opened up an eight-minute lead at 25km, enough to put Brochard in the virtual lead. The former world champion started the stage in 49th and 7:58 behind race leader Voigt.

The break included veterans Bortolami, a stage winner in Rennes 11 years ago, and Brochard, a winner on Bastille Day to Loudenvielle in 1997, as well as young guns Posthuma, winner of a stage in Paris-Nice, and León Sanchez, winner at the Tour Down Under.

The lead expanded to 10:40 near the day’s feed zone at Grignon, enough to prompt Crédit Agricole to lead the chase. A strong ride by Moreau could have put the veteran Frenchman into the yellow jersey.

Into the Alps
The Cormet de Roseland (20.1km at 6 percent) marked the official entrance into the Alps for the 2005 Tour. The 6453-foot summit was also the highest point so far this year.

The long, grinding climb soon took it out of the peloton. Jean-Patrick Nazon (Ag2r) was one of the early riders spit out the back. Other big riders such as Stefano Zanini (Quick Step) and Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) had trouble maintaining the pace set by Crédit Agricole. Others failing to hold the pace were Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas-Bianchi), Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r) and Salvatore Commesso (Lampre-Caffita).

Things got interesting in the main bunch with 83km to go. Oscar Pereiro (Phonak), Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas-Bianchi) and Jörg Jaksche (Liberty Seguros) took a stab. Quickly bridging out were Spaniards Mancebo, Valverde and Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile).

The action left Pietro Caucchioli (Crédit Agricole) at the front for Moreau, but brought some of the Discovery jerseys up front to increase the tempo to shut down that potentially dangerous move with 81km to go.

“I have confidence in my team,” Armstrong said before the start. “Maybe it’s possible to get the jersey today. I always think about the jersey. What’s important today is that the team is strong again.”

Discovery Channel massed to the front, with Beltrán, Rubiera, Hincapie and Noval setting the tempo. As a result, any remaining doubts following Saturday’s hiccups were squelched; the blue train was back.

The accelerations fractured the lead group, which atrophied to about 60 riders. One name conspicuously missing was Mayo, the Basque sensation still nursing a sore knee from a crash in the first week of the Tour.

Race leader Voigt had trouble maintaining contact with the front group with 2km left to the Roseland summit, but he gritted his way over the top. In a sure sign that Team CSC is squarely behind Basso, no distinctive red-and-white jerseys came back to assist the struggling maillot jaune.

Phonak and Liberty played their cards a second time, with Jaksche following the attacking Pereiro with about 1km to go to the summit, topping out some 20 seconds ahead of the lead group.

Brochard then shot away from the leaders, grabbing the climber’s points atop the Roseland and roaring down the descent at break-neck speed. He opened a minute on the chasers. Sanchez, the promising young Spanish rider, then made a strong dig to bridge out.

The odds were against them and the chasing seven (the original five plus Pereiro and Jaksche) caught them on the flats. “We’ll have a better chance with Jaksche,” Liberty Seguros team director Manolo Saiz said on French TV. “Discovery is looking strong. We’ll have to be patient.”

On the harrowing descent, Christophe Brandt (Davitamon-Lotto) punctured and Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel) crashed into the Team CSC car, leaving him with a cut to his left elbow. He quickly chased back on and was later smiling and waving to the cameras.

Discovery Channel led the main bunch down the long valley off the Roseland. A 30km rolling descent brought the bunch to Moûtiers. From there, it was 28.5km to go, almost all of it uphill.

Assault on Courchevel
Jaksche tried his luck for a stage victory, dropping Brochard, Pereiro and Krivtsov (who flatted at the base of the climb) and was hanging on to a one-minute lead with 14km to go.

Behind him, the suffering was only just beginning. With 23km to go, Voigt’s yellow jersey dream started to unravel. Mayo, who had difficulties over the Roseland, also quickly lost contact.

Starting from 20km to go, riders in this order slipped off the back: Totschnig (Gerolsteiner), Brad McGee (FDJeux), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi), Sevilla (T-Mobile), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros), David Moncoutié (Cofidis), Joseba Beloki (Liberty Seguros), Vladimir Karpets (Illes Balears), Moreau (Crédit Agricole), Michael Rogers (Quick Step), Alberto Contador (Liberty Seguros), Bobby Julich (CSC), and Santiago Botero (Phonak).

with 14km to go, the lead group was down to: Armstrong, Hincapie, Azevedo, Popovych, Savoldelli (Discovery Channel); Mancebo, Valverde (Illes Balears), Basso (CSC), Vinokourov, Ullrich and Klöden (T-Mobile), Rasmussen, Evans, Landis, Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval), Eddy Mazzoleni (Lampre-Caffita), Kashechkin (Crédit Agricole) and Pereiro (from the early attack).

Popovych took a deep dig with 11km to go, enough to drop Ullrich and Klöden.

With 10.5km to go, Jaksche was caught and soon dropped, leaving Armstrong, Basso, Mancebo, Valverde, Rasmussen and Evans. Within the next 2km, Evans and Basso would be dropped leaving the final four.

Armstrong couldn’t get the stage win, but he scored the morale-boosting performance at the expense of his rivals. “Days like this you have to look to the rivals to hopefully take as much time out of them as you can. If you see them suffering, or on the limit, or on the ropes, you have to go,” Armstrong said. “We weren’t afraid to do that today, but it’s not over. They’ll come back and make life tough.”

1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Illes Balears, 192.5km 4:50:35 (36.547kph)
2. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel, 00:00
3. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, 00:09
4. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Illes Balears, 00:09
5. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, 01:02
6. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, 01:15
7. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), Lampre, 02:14
8. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, 02:14
9. Andreas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, 02:14
10. Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz), Credit Agricole, 02:14
11. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, 02:14
12. Leonardo Piepoli (I), Saunier Duval, 02:14
13. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, 02:14
14. Jorg Jaksche (G), Liberty Seguros, 02:19
15. Santiago Botero (Col), Phonak, 02:50
Full Results

1. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel
2. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, 00:38
3. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, 02:40
4. Christophe Moreau (F), Credit Agricole, 02:42
5. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Illes Balears, 03:16
6. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, 03:58
7. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Illes Balears, 04:00
8. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, 04:02
9. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, 04:16
10. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, 04:16Full Results

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