Cycling: Armstrong wants explanation as his back-up boys go missing

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The Independent Online

The 2005 Tour de France's first incursion into the mountains yesterday saw Lance Armstrong completely isolated from his team and under serious attack from two of his major rivals, the T-Mobile team-mates Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden.

After breaking away from the peloton of Tour favourites on the final second category climb of the Col de la Schlucht, Klöden eventually suffered a stinging defeat, losing the stage by just two millimetres from Dutchman Pieter Weening.

However, the 2004 Tour runner-up - barely rated a favourite after a dismal spring and early summer - none the less managed to regain nearly 30 seconds on Armstrong, and must now be considered a candidate for victory in Paris.

Even more important is that Armstrong's team have been shown to be far weaker on the mountain climbs than in 2004 even before the race hits the Alps on Tuesday, leading their leader to sum up the stage as a "jour de merde. If we have two more weeks like today, we're in trouble."

T-Mobile's collective assault on Armstrong's Discovery Channel squad began when Vinokourov laid down a remorseless series of attacks five kilometres from the summit of the Schlucht. Come Vinokourov's sixth attempt to shake off Armstrong, the Texan had no team-mates for support - an unprecedented sign of vulnerability so early in the Tour.

"It was definitely a crisis within the team. We're suffering perhaps from being over-confident," Armstrong analysed. "But it was a very fast assault on the climb, nearly 40 kmh, so it's not necessarily an indication of what will happen in the Alps. I suffered, I'd had a bad night's sleep, and when you go into the red zone you have to let some attacks go."

While most of Armstrong's rivals seemed almost as confused as the Texan by this unexpected situation, Klöden was the quickest to take advantage, blasting off from the left-hand side of the peloton. Armstrong had no choice but to watch Vinokourov's team-mate ride away, and rely on unexpected support from the Spanish squad Illes Balears to ensure the gap did not get too large.

Egged on by tens of thousands of German fans wielding T-Mobile flags, Klöden stormed up the final ramps of the 15km Schlucht climb, reaching Weening by the summit. The two came within eight seconds of being caught by the peloton as Illes Balears riders at the head of a yellow jersey group of 30 riders laid down a ferocious pursuit on the fast descent to the finish at Gérardmur.

But a moment of hesitation by the chasers as the two stage leaders reached the first houses of the tiny township in the heart of the Vosges mountain range suddenly caused their advantage almost to triple. Well aware that gaining time on Armstrong was as important as winning the stage, Klöden led all the way in the final kilometre with Weening seemingly struggling to hang on to his back wheel.

But the wily Dutchman then managed to squeeze past Klöden at the last possible moment to take his first-ever Tour stage win and first professional victory by the tiniest of margins.

"If the stage had been a couple of metres longer, I'd probably have blown it," he said, "and, in fact, I had no idea I'd actually won." The 24-year-old Rabobank rider added: "But I sat on Klöden's wheel for most of the final kilometres, and that gave me a chance to get my breath back."

While his victory will prove largely inconsequential for the final outcome of the Tour, the large dent in Armstrong's armour, caused by his isolation on a relatively insignificant climb, has caused immense speculation about the race leader's real strength.

The Texan finished 20th on yesterday's stage in the centre of a group of race favourites, 27 seconds down on Klöden and, with no supporting team-mates in sight, his hold on the yellow jersey shaken but still intact.

However, there are now some major question marks over whether at 33, Armstrong has taken part in a Tour de France too many.

"Just because I've won six Tours doesn't mean I'll win seven," Armstrong, unusually pessimistic, warned. "I will be talking to the riders tonight and seeing what they have to say."

The brutal truth for Armstrong is that, unless the American's team show a collective improvement of strength, his rivals will be relishing the opportunity to attack a living legend of the sport.How soon? The first Alpine mountain-top finish at Courchevel, which takes place on Tuesday, was the scenario for one of Armstrong's rare defeats in the Tour, in 2000, at the hands of the late Marco Pantani. Five years on, to judge on this first day in the mountains, history may yet repeat itself.