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Cardenas captures 12th stage

AX-LES-THERMES, France -- Drawing strength from the
mountains again, Lance Armstrong outclassed Jan Ullrich for the
third straight stage and bolstered his bid for a third consecutive
Tour de France title.

Colombia's Felix Cardenas won the 12th stage between Perpignan
and this ski station in the Pyrenees, with Spain's Roberto Laiseka
second.

Armstrong finished third, making a late sprint in the uphill
finish to beat Ullrich -- his main rival -- to the line by 23
seconds.

The Texan remained third overall but greatly reduced the lead
held by Francois Simon of France and second-placed Andrei Kivilev
of Kazakstan. That lead is expected to shrink further in the next
two stages in the Pyrenees as Armstrong steps up his attack.

Saturday's stage is a grueling 120-mile stretch covering six
difficult mountain passes between the medieval city of Foix and
Saint-Lary-Soulan.

Whoever leads by the end of the three stages in the Pyrenees
will almost certainly wear the yellow jersey when the Tour finishes
on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 29.

Cardenas was well ahead in the last climb of the 103-mile
stretch when Armstrong and Ullrich advanced toward the front of the
main pack and broke away.

Ullrich looked back repeatedly at Armstrong, expecting to be
overtaken at any moment -- but nothing happened.

Then, in the final few miles, Armstrong surged ahead, opening a
huge gap. Ullrich, his teeth gritted and a ring glistening in his
left ear, was unable to react.

"I was surprised that Ullrich attacked so early in the last
climb," Armstrong said. "I think that it was premature and I
think he tired out early.

"But when he attacks, nobody can follow him sitting down."

Armstrong beat Ullrich by nearly two minutes Tuesday in the
first of two grueling stages in the Alps and was a minute faster in
the uphill time trial the next day.

Ullrich, distraught after the first two setbacks, took the
latest defeat in stride.

"I rode very well today, and I'll keep doing so," the German
rider for Team Telekom said. "At least I can try to keep on
attacking."

If Armstrong can take the leader's yellow jersey and extend his
lead over Ullrich in the Pyrenees, he is almost certain of another
Tour title. The six stages after the mountains are unlikely to
affect the standings substantially.

Cardenas was timed in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 34 seconds on Friday
in a stage that went high into the densely wooded Pyrenees, where
wild bears still roam. Armstrong was 15 seconds off the pace.

Simon was 41st and Kivilev was 18th. They are ahead in the
overall rankings thanks to Sunday's stage in which a breakaway
group finished nearly 36 minutes ahead of the main pack, including
Armstrong and Ullrich.

Dutch rider Bram de Groot sustained serious facial injuries
Friday in a crash on the fast ride down from the Col de Jau
mountain pass, doctors said. He was flown by helicopter to a
hospital in Perpignan. Russia's Sergei Ivanov injured his left
shoulder in the same fall.

Christophe Moreau, who finished last year's Tour in fourth place
and won this year's prologue, dropped out of the race because of
what a Tour medical report called "persistent lung problems."

He was lagging behind the main pack when he withdrew two hours
after Friday's start.