While Felix Cardenas was busy celebrating being the 10th Colombian to take a stage of the Tour de France, close behind him at the finish the overwhelming race-favourite Lance Armstrong had delivered another blow to his most dangerous rival, Jan Ullrich.
Twenty-three seconds and an eight-second time bonus for third on the stage is not an earth-shattering time difference, but when Armstrong dropped the German with 1,500 metres to go on the climb to Ax-les-Thermes ski station, it was Ullrich's third high-mountain defeat to the Texan in as many racing days, and could lead to him throwing in the towel in the fight for first place in Paris. The German tried to buck the trend by attacking at the foot of the final climb, but Armstrong, already 3:34 ahead of him on overall standings thanks to his back-to-back Alpine victories, followed him quickly.
After the two shook off climber Andrei Kivilev, whose second place overall is proving increasingly fragile, on the first steep left-hand corner, Ullrich settled into his steady mountain grind, not once rising out of his saddle whilst the American bobbed and bounced on the pedals behind him. Ullrich did not make a particularly violent charge up the nine-kilometre climb through typically dense Pyrenean woodlands and lush meadows, but after finishing second three times in the Tour, the German is determined to topple Armstrong, even at the risk of self-destruction.
Ullrich led Armstrong past early attackers Jose Ivan Gutierrez, Sebastian Demarbaix and Michele Bartoli in quick succession. From his first burst of speed, catching Cardenas, currently engaged in attacking his fellow-breakaway David Etxebarría three kilometres higher, did not seem unrealistic. Armstrong then began to collaborate, a slightly surprising move, perhaps, but tactically it was to his advantage. He has to put as much time as possible into race leader François Simon, who had stubbornly managed to stay with the peloton as it wound its way through the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Despite Armstrong's patchy assistance, Ullrich was finally beginning to lose gas when veteran Basque climber Roberto Laiseka latched onto the duo, and then passed them in search of Cardenas and a possible stage victory.
The Colombian only had a minute's lead on the Euskaltel rider with four kilometres to go, but was far enough ahead to cross the line with an unusual victory salute standing upright despite flagging on the last section of the climb.
It was a highly emotional victory for his Kelme team. Last year they won the first stage in the Pyrenees with Javier Otxoa, who was involved in a fatal training accident in February with his twin brother Ricardo, also a professional cyclist. A car hit the two head-on, killing Ricardo, while Javier is still recovering.
But even if Armstrong could not take a third consecutive stage win, he looked likely to take a third consecutive Tour after attacking Ullrich close to the finish.
The German was once again helpless as Armstrong shot past his right and dwindled into a small blue speck ahead of him on a depressingly straight section of road. But if he was 23 seconds adrift of the American at the finish, at least Spaniard Joseba Beloki, his most serious threat for second overall, crossed the line exactly 23 seconds behind him.
When Simon struggled valiantly across the line, he found that the Texan had already slashed nearly four minutes of his overall lead, cutting it to 9-10 overall.
The Dutchman Bram de Groot was in a "satisfactory condition" after he suffered serious facial injuries and lost consciousness in a crash. The 27-year-old Rabobank rider was taken to hospital after falling and hitting a safety barricade on the descent of the Col de Jau, around 70km into the stage.
The disappearance of Christophe Moreau from the race caused consternation yesterday. The Festina leader, a strong race-favourite, packed in after just 50 kilometres of racing, pushing his bike over with a gesture of disgust as he did so. His mysterious exit will be one less rival for Armstrong, but one imagines that Ullrich would have been more relieved to see him go.
Yesterday's tour results: STAGE 12 (Perpginan to Ax-les-Thermes, 166km): 1 F R Cardenas (Col) Kelme-Costa Blanca 5hr 03min 34sec; 2 R Laiseka (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi +13sec; 3 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service +15; 4 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom +38; 5 D Etxebarria (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi +59; 6 O Sevilla (Sp) Kelme-Costa Blanca; 7 J Beloki (Sp) ONCE-Eroski both +1:01; 8 S Botero (Col) Kelme-Costa Blanca, 9 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank, 10 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Telekom +1:35; 11 S Garzelli (It) Mapei-Quick Step, 12 I Chaureau (Sp) Euskaltel- Euskadi, 13 M Serrano (Sp) ONCE-Eroski, 14 D Rous (Fra) Bonjour, 15 F Mancebo (Sp) iBanesto.com all +1:35, 16 IG De Galdeano (Sp) ONCE-Eroski +1:39, 17 R Heras (Sp) US Postal Service +1:42, 18 A Kivilev (Kaz) Cofidis +1:45, 19 JE Gutierrez (Sp) Kelme-Costa Blanca, 20 M Bartoli (It) Mapei-Quick Step both +1:47.
Overall standings: 1 F Simon (Fr) Bonjour 51hr 56min 14sec; 2 A Kivilev (Kaz) Cofidis +8:42; 3 L Armstrong (USA) US Postal Service 9:10; 4 J Beloki (Spa) ONCE-Eroski 13:14; 5 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom 13:15; 6 O Sevilla (Sp) Kelme-Costa Blanca 16:28; 7 IG De Galdeano (Sp) ONCE-Eroski 16:40; 8 S Botero (Col) Kelme-Costa Blanca 19:06; 9 D Rous (Fr) Bonjour 22:55; 10 M Serrano (Sp) ONCE-Eroski 22:58.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content