Cycling: Armstrong climbs off floor to upstage Ullrich

Tour de France: Reigning champion overcomes two setbacks in quick succession but title defence depends on final showdown with German

Forced on the defensive for the last two weeks, Lance Armstrong finally turned the tables on his rivals yesterday with a powerful - but not totally conclusive - stage win at Luz Ardiden.

Despite one crash with a spectator and another near fall just a few moments later, the Texan then turned on the power to charge away from all his rivals with eight kilometres left to climb to the Pyrenean ski station.

By the finish, his advantage over his arch-rival Jan Ullrich was 40 seconds, finally pushing the German, who took third, back over the minute-mark on the overall classification.

"It was a great day for me, despite all the problems," Armstrong said. "Problems" is an understatement of major proportions. This year he has been under pressure from his rivals as never before since 1999. Poor performances in time trials and on the climbs, ill-fitting shoes, gastroenteritis before the race, accidents, crashes - virtually all a cycle race can throw at him - have threatened to wreck his bid for a fifth consecutive Tour win.

Somehow he has remained in yellow for more than a week now, and yesterday - for the first time this year - there could be no doubting his right to it.

Despite Armstrong's "Tour of problems", as he called it, there was no holding back the 31-year-old when he responded to an attack by the Alpe D'Huez winner, Iban Mayo, charging away up the slopes of Luz Ardiden as if his mediocre ride on the Alpine climb eight days before had been in another race.

This was vintage Armstrong, spinning the pedals with his usual high cadence of nearly 110 revolutions a minute - the French call it the "windmill effect" - which seemed to take him effortlessly towards a 16th Tour stage win of his career.

The evidence that all had not gone well before, though, was also plain to see: his yellow jersey was blackened from the fall, a rear chainstay had been broken, and his race number was dangling from his bike frame.

Such setbacks, rather than demoralising him, seemed to spur him on. "I was on an adrenalin rush after falling," Armstrong admitted. He generously refused to put all the blame on the spectator whose food bag entangled in his handlebars and brought both he and Mayo crashing to the ground.

"That adrenalin helped, although then my bike's gear changer was blocked, which is why I then pulled my foot out of the pedal." The second accident in less than 300 metres could have seen Armstrong dropped by Ullrich but instead the latter, with some encouragement from the American's former team-mate Tyler Hamilton, sat up and waited.

"What goes around comes around," Armstrong said, "because I waited for him on the Peyresourde climb when he had a serious crash two years ago, and I think Jan remembered." But as Armstrong charged up the road just a few minutes later, Ullrich probably recalled the succession of mountain-top defeats he has suffered.

Gradually, the 1997 Tour winner managed to heighten his pace, limiting the gap to 40 seconds at the summit, and enabling him to remain in contention for what will now be the decisive time trial on Saturday.

This is probably the only good news for Ullrich, who had briefly managed to drop Armstrong on the Tourmalet, the 6,000ft monster climb that preceded Luz Ardiden, but then when he looked round half a mile later he discovered, to his dismay, that the American had returned to his back wheel.

Britain's David Millar, despite suffering from bronchitis and being dropped on the second of three small climbs early on, pulled back from the brink of quitting as his condition improved during the day. "He's determined to make it through to Bayonne on Wednesday because that's close to his home in France at Biarritz," said the Cofidis manager, Francis Van Londersele, as he waited for Millar, 34 minutes down in a group of non-challengers for the general classification.

The race has come down to the final time trial for the first time since 1989, when Laurent Fignon lost it to Greg LeMond by eight seconds. Minutes after the victory at Luz Ardiden, the psychological war against Ullrich had already begun. "Some people seem to think I can't time trial any more but I know what to do on Saturday," Armstrong said.

One factor in his favour is recent Tour history: each year since 1999 - his first Tour victory - Armstrong has won the last time trial in the race. But on those occasions his victory was merely a symbolic one "to prove I was the rightful wearer of the yellow jersey." This time, ending the Tour with all guns blazing will be the only way he can be sure he will win it.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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