|Thursday, July 18
Armstrong climbs into first place
LA MONGIE, France -- The opening mountain stage in the Tour France went as expected, and now Lance Armstrong is where he expected to be.
In first place.
Armstrong, known for his dominance in the mountains, did not pull away from the pack as he has done in winning the last three Tours. Still, he defeated Spain's Joseba Beloki by 7 seconds in Thursday's leg from Pau to this ski station in the Pyrenees.
Armstrong clocked 4 hours, 21 minutes, 57 seconds in the stage and leads the Tour by 1:12 over Beloki.
"I'm very satisfied,'' Armstrong said after taking the overall leader's yellow jersey from another Spaniard, Igor Gonzalez Galdeano.
Armstrong proved why he remains the favorite to win the Tour, silencing those who thought his defeat in Monday's time trial showed he was weak.
The Texan also appeared to win the 97.96-mile stage without major effort, apart from the final sprint to the finish line.
That suggested he may be saving energy for Friday's longer and tougher leg. It ends with an exceptionally difficult climb, similar to those Armstrong has used in recent years to leave his opponents stranded.
Armstrong said he was aggressive in the opening mountain stage the last three years, but did not use the same strategy Thursday.
"I didn't attack,'' Armstrong said. "It just felt very different.''
Although demanding, Thursday's climb to La Mongie was not hard enough to prevent rivals, such as Beloki, from keeping up with Armstrong most of the way.
It wasn't as difficult as the ride to L'Alpe d'Huez, which last year saw Armstrong open a 2:34 lead over his top challenger, Jan Ullrich. It wasn't as grueling as Friday's final stretch to the Plateau de Beille, which should be a highlight of this year's Tour.
Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammate Roberto Heras did most of the work on Thursday. He led Armstrong and Beloki in a break from the other race favorites, including Gonzalez Galdeano, some three miles before the finish.
Heras, from Spain, set a blistering pace and the trio soon overtook Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, who had been in front for the last 74.4 miles.
Heras moved aside near the finish, allowing Armstrong to sprint to the end.
"For me, Roberto is the stage winner,'' Armstrong said. "He sacrificed everything for me and the team, and I'm very grateful.''
Heras finished the stage in third place, 13 seconds behind his teammate.
Gonzalez Galdeano, who was wearing the yellow jersey for the seventh consecutive day, flagged in the climb to La Mongie and placed 11th. He fell to third place in the overall standings, 1:48 behind Armstrong. Beloki, Gonzalez Galdeano's teammate with Once, was second overall.
"Beloki's good,'' Armstrong said. "He's a threat, and we have to take all the time possible.''
However, the American appeared relaxed during Thursday's race. He even had time to glance at a tour diagram he held in his right hand, to gauge the difficulty of the climbs ahead.
"I thought it would be more aggressive, I thought there would be more attacks,'' he said after his win.
It was the second time Armstrong has taken the yellow jersey this year. He won the Tour prologue in Luxembourg, but gave up the jersey in the Tour's first full leg.
Before Thursday's stage started, a minute's silence was observed in memory of a 7-year-old boy who was hit and killed by a car from the Tour convoy on Wednesday.
Friday's stage is a grueling 123.69-mile stretch from Lannemezan to the Plateau de Beille. It will take riders up the Portet d'Aspet mountain pass, where Armstrong's Italian teammate Fabio Casartelli was killed in a crash in the 1995 Tour.