Armstrong in T-Mobile's sights as going gets tough

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The Independent Online

The seeds of a rebellion were sowed last Saturday, when a series of impetuous attacks by Armstrong's challenger, Alexandre Vinokourov, on a minor mountain climb, left Armstrong isolated from his team-mates in a group containing all the Tour favourites. The upshot of the ensuing battle was that Vinokourov's team-mate Andreas Klöden, clawed back 27 seconds from the Texan.

Armstrong has created two additional lines of defence: on Sunday he ceded the yellow jersey to the German Jens Voigt, and is now lying third overall, 2min 18sec back.

This was a tactical withdrawal, however, which took into account Voigt's inability to handle the mountains. Armstrong willcalculate that the German will draw some of the enemy's fire, as well as gaining him some limited support from Voigt's CSC squad today en route to the Tour's first summit finish, in Courchevel.

Asked if the apparent shift in power from Armstrong to Voigt made any difference, Vinokourov, the 31-year-old T-Mobile rider - who was the first to attack the American on the Alpe d'Huez in 2003, when Armstrong's control last truly faltered - stated simply: "Not really. We will be going on the attack, for Voigt or for Armstrong."

The "we" Vinokourov referred to included the third and least predictable element of T-Mobile's three-pronged assault on Armstrong, the 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich.

Ullrich's approach to the Tour, let alone the Alps, has been eventful. The German crashed through his team manager's back windscreen on the eve of the Tour, and then added to his tribulations by falling off his bike at 60kph (37mph) on a descent early on Sunday.

While thankful that he rolled in the right direction - into a ditch on the right of the road, not a 40-foot ravine on the left - Ullrich suffered bruises and abrasions to his head, left shoulder, back and ribs. "I'm OK and ready to go," the 31-year-old said yesterday. "Nothing's broken. I'm still determined to win the Tour."

Fighting talk, even if Ullrich, better than anybody, knows that for the past six years, Armstrong has invariably used the Tour's first major mountain stage to launch an all-out attack. Even in 2003, his most difficult year, the American ended the day in yellow.

Vinokourov remains optimistic. "With all three of us in the same team, our strength to beat Armstrong has multiplied," he said. Whether T-Mobile's combined force is enough to sweep away the Tour's ancien régime, though, will only begin to be revealed today

l Today's 10th stage of the Tour de France will start in Brignoud, 11.5km from its scheduled start, in Grenoble, because of a farmers' protests which would have blocked the riders' route. A token protest, lasting a few minutes, will still take place.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'