Just as in his two previous Tour victories, Lance Armstrong delivered a knock-out blow to his rivals on the first key mountain stage yesterday, becoming only the second American ever to win on the Alpe D'Huez, cycling's most hallowed climb.
The steepest of the 21 hairpin bends on the Alpe are at its foot, but the 29-year-old Texan seemed immune to their difficulty as he first ordered his team-mate José Luis Rubiera to up the pace, took one quick look back at his main rival for the yellow jersey, Jan Ullrich, then accelerated effortlessly away.
While the German looked desperately around for support, finding none, the American settled into his typically fast-pedalled high mountain style and powered up the climb.
Such was his strength, Armstrong was able to open a time gap of two minutes in less than a third of the Alpe's 13 kilometres, rapidly bearing down on early breakaway Laurent Roux.
Just after half-way up the climb he stormed past the Frenchman – who had come agonisingly close to the almost unheard of feat of being off the front in a mountain stage from start to finish. However, Armstrong was merciless, and did not even spare the rider a single look as he headed towards his eighth Tour stage win.
But if Roux was floundering on the slopes averaging eight per cent, the US Postal leader had no difficulty rising out of the saddle as and when he wanted, whilst a frustrated-looking Ullrich, staring grimly at the bars, rarely stood on the pedals.
Joseba Beloki, third overall last year, was closest to the Telekom rider's back wheel for most of the German's fruitless pursuit at the head of a five-man following group, but Ullrich finally shook him off with two kilometres to go.
By then, though, Armstrong was already easing into the final short stretch of false flat section past Swiss chocolate box-style chalets in the ugly ski resort, punching the air with evident delight as he crossed the line nearly two minutes ahead of the German. In stark contrast Ullrich was virtually slumped over the bike when he finished, with Beloki and Christophe Moreau – third and fourth behind the German in last year's final classification – taking the same positions on the stage, 9min 31sec further adrift.
Given there are four mountain stages left, Armstrong was understandably cautious afterwards, saying: "Perhaps I made a mistake today attacking so early on the Alpe – it's hard to keep a rhythm going so long. I am going to be tired tomorrow for the mountain time-trial – like everybody else."
Unlike last year's first mountain stage, Armstrong was unable to seize the yellow jersey, now held by the Frenchman François Simon, a non-climber who profited from forming part of a 14-man break on Sunday which gained a massive 35 minutes over the field.
The youngest of four brothers, all current or former professional cyclists, Simon said he was more than pleased to take the lead on the same mountain where his elder sibling Pascal lost the maillot jaune in 1983. "He phoned me this morning and told me to get it back for the family," he said. Tour legend says the rider in yellow on the Alpe D'Huez finishes in the same colour on the Champs-Elysées, but Simon admitted that his 20-minute lead over Armstrong will probably crumble into nothing before the last mountain stage on Sunday.
And while Armstrong could well become the first rider to win on both Alpe D'Huez and in Paris since Fausto Coppi in 1951, David Millar will not be seeing the Champs Elysées this year. The Scot abandoned on the Madeleine descent, the second last climb of the day. "He was completely exhausted," his team manager, Alain Deloeuil, said. "It wasn't so much his leg injury as zero morale – he couldn't even stay with the last group."
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly
Stage 10 (Aix-Les-Bains-L'Alpe D'Huez, 209km, 130 miles): 1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal Service 6hr 23min 47sec; 2 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom +1min 59sec; 3 J Beloki (Sp) ONCE +2:09; 4 C Moreau (Fr) Festina +2:30; 5 O Sevilla (Sp) Kelme +2:54; 6 F Mancebo (Sp) Banesto +4:01; 7 L Roux (Fr) Jean Delatour +4:03; 8 IG de Galdeano (Sp) ONCE; 9 R Laiseka (Sp) Euskaltel all same time; 10 L Piepoli (It) Banesto +4:07; 11 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +4:37; 12 A Kivilev (Kaz) Cofidis +4:39; 13 S Botero (Col) Kelme +5:05; 14 S Montgomery (Swit) Française des Jeux +5:09; 15 D Roux (Fr) Bonjour +6:18; 16 A Merckx (Bel) Domo; 17 M Serrano (Sp) ONCE; 18 W Belli (It) Fassa Bortolo s/t; 19 G Mikhanlov (Rus) Lotto +7:05; 20 S Garzelli (It) Mapei +7:54. Selected: 34 L Jalabert (Fr) CSC +11.01. Abandoned: A Casero (Sp) Festina, D Millar (GB) Cofidis, T Steels (Bel) Mapei, L Capelle (Bel) AG2r, J Kirsipuu (Est) AG2r, N-B Larsen (Den) CSC, A Gonzalez (Sp) Kelme.
Overall: 1 F Simon (Fr) Bonjour 45hr 34min 09sec; 2 A Kivilev (Kaz) Cofidis +11min 54sec; 3 S O'Grady (Aus) Crédit Agricole +18:10; 4 Armstrong +20:07; 5 Beloki (Sp) ONCE +21:42; 6 Moreau +22:21; 7 Ullrich +22:41; 8 De Galdeano +23:34; 9 Sevilla +24:07; 10 Botero +25:52; 11 Boogerd +25:58; 12 Serrano +26"15; 13 Mancebo +27:15; 14 L Jalabert +28:06; 15 Roux +28:40; 16 JE Gutierrez (Sp) Kelme +29:30; 17 Merckx +29:48; 18 Belli +29:52; 19 R Heras (Sp) US Postal +29:53; 20 Montgomery +29:57. Points: 1 O'Grady 136; 2 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 127; 3 D Nazon (Fr) Bonjour 90. King of the Mountains: 1 Roux 127pts; 2 L Jalabert 106; 3 E Jimenez (Sp) Banesto 80. Under 25: 1 Sevilla 45hr 58min 16sec; 2 Mancebo +3min 08sec; 3 Montgomery +5:50.Reuse content