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By Justin Davis, Copyright Agence France Presse 2004
Lance Armstrong may not have won his record sixth yellow jersey yet, but a day before the Tour de France restarts with the mountainous 15th stage, his team manager Johan Bruyneel could not feel better.
After just two weeks of racing, Armstrong – in second place at 22sec behind race leader Thomas Voeckler of France – has taken massive steps towards a sixth consecutive yellow jersey, and got rid of three of his main rivals in the process.
Jan Ullrich, Germany’s 1997 winner, is almost seven minutes adrift of Armstrong while last year’s fourth place finisher Tyler Hamilton, formerly of US Postal, abandoned due to a back injury.
Earlier in the race Spaniard Iban Mayo, of the Basque Euskaltel team, lost precious minutes due to a crash on the cobblestones, and the 26-year-old Basque suffered humiliation when he came close to abandoning in the Pyrenees a few days ago.
That only leaves Italian Ivan Basso, of the CSC team, who proved he can give Armstrong a run for his money in the Pyrenees with a victory in front of the American at La Mongie, and a second place behind Armstrong on the Plateau de Beille.
Fifth-placed Spaniard Francisco Mancebo, meanwhile, has just about resigned himself to looking for a podium place.
“I know that Ullrich, (Andreas) Klöden and (Georg) Totschnig will not give in, but I would prefer to claim a podium place than win a stage,” said the Baleares rider, who is 3:28 behind Voeckler.
US Postal team manager Bruyneel, however, feels that it was Ullrich who was the biggest disappointment of the race.
T-Mobile leader Ullrich, runner-up five times on the Tour, and three times behind Armstrong, is now in danger of having to work for his teammate Andreas Klöden, who is fourth behind Voeckler at 3:18.
Bruyneel feels that Ullrich’s demise is partly due to bad pre-Tour preparations.
“He went from having bad form to great form too quickly, in a period of about five weeks,” said Bruyneel.
“It’s entirely possible, but the danger is that it can totally zap your energy reserves. I think that in absolute terms, he is still Lance’s biggest rival – that’s why I’m happy to see him so far down the standings. However Bruyneel warned: “But Jan always finishes the Tour well. It remains to be seen now if he will try and improve his general classification, or try to help Klöden.”
Basso meanwhile has become friends off the bike with Armstrong, a cancer survivor who is trying to help the Italian’s mother cope with her own form of the illness.
However the 26-year-old, who two years ago won the white jersey for the Tour’s best rider under 25 years old, admits it’s a different story when he’s on the bike.
“I’m someone who tries to keep a cool head during the race,” said Basso. “But if I can hit hard, I’ll go for it. When I attack, it’s to put everyone else out the race.”
“We have a good relationship (with Armstrong). I appreciated it when he came to see me after the stage to Plateau de Beille,” he said. “But in the race, we’re rivals. If there’s a chance to beat him, I’ll try to take it.”
Basso, who with Armstrong in the Pyrenees put the rest of the field to the sword, came in seventh overall on the Tour last year and is considered, along with a few others of his generation a future winner.
And to succeed, he’s taking a leaf out of Armstrong’s book.
“I’ve made a lot of improvements. I’ve changed teams and I’ve really prepared for this Tour,” he explained. “I’ve been thinking of it since the winter. I haven’t tried to win any other races. The only thing that’s been on my mind is the Tour de France.”