|Monday, July 21
Armstrong stages big comeback after fall
LUZ-ARDIDEN, France -- Lance Armstrong routed two rivals in a riveting climb in the Tour de France on Monday, recovering from a fall to stamp his authority on the race after two difficult weeks.
His victory in the misty mountains of the Pyrenees bolstered his chances of equaling Miguel Indurain's record of five straight Tour victories.
Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, is now 67 seconds back overall, giving Armstrong a more comfortable lead with five stages left. Ullrich, grimacing near the finish, started the day trailing by just 15 seconds.
Armstrong crossed the finish line 40 seconds before Ullrich did -- and padded his lead by an additional 12 seconds thanks to a time bonus for winning the stage.
Another rival left behind was Alexandre Vinokourov. The Kazak had been 18 seconds behind, but he was left flailing and is now out of contention.
That essentially reduces the Tour to a duel between Armstrong and Ullrich leading to the finish in Paris on Sunday.
The fall came with about 6 miles left in the 99-mile stage. Armstrong slammed to the road after a spectator's outstretched bag caught his handlebars.
He grazed his left elbow and dirtied the left shoulder of his yellow jersey when he drove into a spectator. He then climbed back on his bike and got back in the race.
The Texan also grazed his left hip but was otherwise unhurt, said Jogi Muller, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service team.
"After the fall, I had a big, big rush of adrenaline," Armstrong said. He said he then told himself, "Lance if you want to win the Tour de France, do it today."
Armstrong said he was partly to blame because he was riding too close to the edge of the road. Spain's Iban Mayo also fell after crashing into Armstrong as he lay on the road.
The drama didn't stop there. A few seconds after getting back on his bike, Armstrong nearly fell again when his right foot slipped out of his pedal.
Ullrich had to swerve to avoid the crash. He waited with other riders while Armstrong and Mayo got back on their bikes and caught up.
Armstrong, slumped over his bike after his ride, earned his first stage win of this Tour. Where just days ago Armstrong appeared haggard and drained, on Monday he looked like the champion of old.
Vinokourov, his mouth gaping in exhaustion, finished 2:07 back in the 15th stage and dropped behind 2:45 overall. He was eighth in the stage, with Ullrich third and Mayo second.
The tens of thousands of spectators who lined the route were anticipating an outstanding race -- and it exceeded expectations.
The climb recalled some of Armstrong's great ascents. Having recovered from the crash, he surged up the mountain and into the mist, his eyes fixed on the road. His legs whirring, a silver cross bouncing on his chest, Armstrong widened the gap over Ullrich.
Armstrong needed to build his lead going into Saturday's time trial, which could prove the deciding stage of this centennial Tour.
Ullrich was devastating in the last time trial Friday, taking a 96-second chunk out of Armstrong's overall lead and dealing the Texan a blow that until Monday appeared to have been nearly irreparable.
"This morning, I knew today was a very big day for me ... and if that I wanted to win the Tour de France, it was necessary to go all out and attack today," Armstrong said.
Never had Armstrong been so closely shadowed by his rivals since he first won the Tour in 1999. Almost from the beginning, he had problems. He was sick before the Tour; he was involved in a crash on the second day; he failed to shine in the Alps. Then came the fall.
"This has been a Tour of too many problems, too many close calls," Armstrong said. "I wish it would stop. I wish I could just have some uneventful days. Anyway, I had a good day today."
Ullrich's best chance to overtake Armstrong most likely will come in the time trial, a race against the clock in which he excels.
Aitor Garmendia, Ullrich's teammate, said the ferocity of Armstrong's attack on the summit at the Luz-Ardiden ski resort, caught the German by surprise.
"Ullrich has had an incredible last few days and he's a bit tired today," Garmendia said. "But he'll recover. Never has he been so close to Lance."