Cycling: Armstrong revels in show of strength

Discovery's arch-rivals T-Mobile tested out the strategy on yesterday's gruelling 220-kilometre (136.7-mile) stage - the third longest in the 2005 Tour - when four of their riders accelerated at high speed up the lower slopes of the stage's second-last climb, the Pailheres.

For the second time in this year's Tour, the Texan was cut off from his seven remaining team-mates, but the race leader more than rose to the challenge, ultimately powering to second place on the stage behind the Austrian winner, Georg Totschnig. It almost went without saying that in the process Armstrong doubled his overall lead over the second-placed Mickael Rasmussen to nearly two minutes. "It's true I was a bit isolated, and that made it a very tactical stage and a difficult day," Armstrong admitted afterwards. "But I could find a solution."

Part of the Texan's way out was to let his rivals concentrate on eliminating each other after T-Mobile's initial drive on the Pailheres had left their leader, Jan Ullrich, out in front alongside the Italian contender Ivan Basso, of the CSC squad, and two other riders.

But instead of collaborating to try and leave the American behind, the two riders slowed and eyeballed each other from opposite sides of the road. The consequence was that Armstrong rapidly reeled in the quartet from a chasing group 100 metres behind and got back in control. Following a lethally fast descent to the foot of the climb, the scenario was virtually replayed again, as T-Mobile accelerated, resulting in Basso, Ullrich and Armstrong going out ahead. Halfway up the eight-kilometre ascent, the American then began his own series of accelerations, both to demonstrate - as if it was not obvious - who was in control and also to distance the rest of the field.

Given Totschnig's advantage of three minutes with two kilometres left to race, clinching the stage win was not an option for the Texan, but a final increase in rhythm none the less proved fatal for Ullrich. The German was forced to watch Armstrong's back wheel on the long straight slopes of one in 10 leading to the finish as the gap between himself and Armstrong widened inexorably.

Having shaken off Basso, Armstrong's advantage of 20 seconds over Ullrich at the finish was hardly vast. But after all T-Mobile's hard work, for the American to beat them anyway must have been a real blow to their collective pride. That Gerolsteiner, the other German team present in the Tour, managed to secure the stage win to boot through Totschnig was hardly much consolation, either.

Now 1min 41sec ahead of Rasmussen - and with Ullrich well out of the danger zone in fourth place at 4min 34sec, Armstrong was so good-humoured afterwards he briefly donned a T-Mobile cap and even went so far as to praise their strategy of a mass attack. "If I'd been in their situation, that's exactly what I'd have done, to try and isolate me. It's scary when that sort of thing happens," he said. "But you either fight back or run away, and I fought back."

Armstrong admitted that on today's 200-kilometre grind over six Pyrenean climbs, finishing on the exceptionally difficult Pla d'Adet ascent and unanimously rated the hardest stage of the entire Tour, it was likely "10 or 15 riders [that are no threat overall] will go clear". However, he is still savouring the possibility of "winning a non time-trial stage. I'd like to do that before the Tour is over."

With or without his team's support, today's mountain-top finish, the last in the race, could well be the Texan's favoured scenario for a last display of the raw power which has held the Tour in thrall for the last seven years.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

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