Hincapie wins hardest stage of Tour in Pyrenees

SAINT-LARY-SOULAN, France -- It was a day of mixed emotions for Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France.

In the morning, he remembered a friend and teammate killed in a crash a decade ago, meeting with the man's widow and young son. In the afternoon, he celebrated as another friend and teammate notched his first solo Tour win.

And, taking care of business, Armstrong solidified his overall race lead Sunday in the brutal 15th stage -- staying on track to retire with a seventh consecutive Tour victory next Sunday.

At the start in the picturesque town of Lezat-sur-Leze, Fabio Casartelli's widow had told Armstrong to go for a win. It didn't work out that way -- but that was just fine. His most loyal teammate, genial New Yorker George Hincapie, pedaled to victory high in the Pyrenees, and Armstrong was delighted.

Hincapie became the first of Armstrong's support riders, and the eighth American, to win an individual Tour stage.

At the finish, the two riders -- friends since they were teens -- hugged and Armstrong gave a thumbs-up.

"This is a dream for me," the 32-year-old Hincapie said. "I'm really in a state of shock."

The 33-year-old Armstrong called Hincapie "my biggest guy, my biggest friend on the team."

"We've been riding together since we were 17," said the six-time Tour champion, who finished seventh. "The guy is one of the best riders in cycling. Period. I'm so proud of him."

Usually, Armstrong's teammates devote themselves entirely to making sure that he wins and have few chances for Tour glory of their own. Their only wins have been collective ones -- in team time trials that Armstrong's squad won for the third consecutive time this year.

But in the sun-baked 127.7-mile trek up six mountain climbs, Hincapie joined a group of riders that broke away from the main pack, which included Armstrong.

Hincapie said he went with that group thinking that Armstrong would catch up to him later in the stage. But the breakaway group built a lead of more than 18 minutes. At that point, Armstrong's team manager gave Hincapie the green light to ride for himself.

"I just started thinking about the win," Hincapie said. "For it to work out is just a dream come true."

Hincapie and Oscar Pereiro, having shaken off the rest of their group, fought for the victory alone on the final and hardest climb to the Pla d'Adet ski station above the Pyrenean town of Saint-Lary-Soulan.

There, Hincapie beat the Spaniard with a sprint finish, shaking his head in disbelief as he crossed the line.

Hincapie is the only one of Armstrong's eight teammates to have been with the Texan for all of his six Tour victories. The last time the Tour visited Pla d'Adet, in 2001, Armstrong won -- on the way to his third Tour title.

Armstrong said Hincapie's victory capped a "perfect day."

"To win a stage in the Tour de France is special, but to win a stage like this which is arguably the hardest stage of the Tour is a big, big accomplishment. He deserves it," he said.

Hincapie's time was 6 hours, 6 minutes, 38 seconds. Pereiro was six seconds back. Three other members of their breakaway group placed third, fourth and fifth.

Behind them, Armstrong again held off his strongest rivals -- Italian Ivan Basso and German Jan Ullrich.

Basso was sixth, with Armstrong right behind. They both finished 5 minutes, 4 seconds behind Hincapie. The effort moved Basso up to second in the overall standings, but he still trails Armstrong by 2:46.

Ullrich struggled on the final climb, placing ninth. His overall deficit to Armstrong grew to 5:58.

Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark, who had been second overall, 1:41 back, fell to third, now 3:09 behind Armstrong. Hincapie is 18th overall.

Armstrong said his lead is "more secure," but that hard racing lies ahead in the last week of the three-week event.

"You never know, you go to a village and take a turn too fast and break your collarbone -- Tour de France over. So you have to be realistic," Armstrong said. "We have a week to go and a lot of things can get in the way."

Crowds are among the potential risks. Some fans ran dangerously alongside the riders up Sunday's climbs. One was knocked down by a motorbike carrying a television cameraman who was filming the race. Race organizers said they had no word on whether the fan was hurt.

The riders passed a monument marking the spot where Casartelli, Armstrong's former teammate, fell and died on July 18, 1995.

Casartelli, the 1992 Olympic road race champion, suffered head injuries in the crash after completing the difficult Col du Portet d'Aspet climb. He was traveling at about 53 mph.

"The feeling hasn't changed over the years," Armstrong said after meeting at the start with Casartelli's parents, widow and 10-year-old son at his Discovery Channel team bus.

"I still get a tear in my eye and still get goose bumps when I pass that incredibly beautiful monument," he said.