Cycling: Ullrich closes on podium place after climb

The stage win was long out of the question for the German - that had gone to the Spaniard Marcos Serrano, the strongest of a day-long early move of 10 - but Ullrich's objective could not have been more different.

Upstaged by his more aggressive, if less consistent team-mate and fellow-contender Alexandre Vinokourov, and with his last chance to beat Armstrong long gone, the 31-year-old's current aim is to restore some credibility by at least clinching a podium finish.

His all-out bid at Mende began the process well. Mickael Rasmussen flailed badly, unable to hold on to Ullrich's wheel when the T-Mobile rider reacted confidently to an attack by the Italian Ivan Basso.

With Armstrong almost inevitably responding to Basso's move, and the Australian Cadel Evans, riding a superb first Tour, also making the cut, the four reached the finish 37 seconds ahead of Rasmussen.

Ullrich has now reduced the Dane's overall margin to less than three minutes, making it more than feasible that on tomorrow's 55km time trial, he will overhaul the Rabobank rider. "Of course I want the third place, but it's also important to get the teams classification prize for T-Mobile in Paris," Ullrich said.

Yesterday's stage win by Serrano was designed to save the bacon for Liberty Seguros, who began the race with high hopes. The Spanish squad's leader, climber Roberto Heras, has won the Tour of Spain three times, but his bids to beat Armstrong on the Tour have failed miserably.

Heras has barely been seen but his team worker Serrano played a masterly tactical game. Shadowing Cedric Vasseur until it was clear the Frenchman was going to crack, Serrano went clear a kilometre from the summit to take his first Tour stage at 32. "It's true that we came here to win the Tour, but better to have this than nothing, no?" Serrano asked; a grudgingly accepted cliché for many during the Armstrong era.