Cycling: Ullrich dares to dream of yellow jersey

Tour de France: Armstrong's lead down to 15 seconds as resurgent German keeps up pressure in the Pyrenees
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The Independent Online

He's still in yellow, but only just. After four years of near-monotonous domination of cycling's blue-riband event, Lance Armstrong's control of the Tour de France is now hanging by the slenderest of threads - his lead over arch-rival Jan Ullrich is now a mere 15 seconds.

Yesterday, on the 9km ascent to Ax-3 Domaines deep in the eastern Pyrenees, the American once more ceded time to the German, who pounded away close to the summit.

Never has the 31-year-old's superiority in the Tour been so close to collapse. Unable to attack on the first mountain-top finish at Alpe D'Huez six days ago, his early advantage accrued in the team time-trial has steadily been eroded by the German to the point where a major power shift at the very top of cycling's hierarchy seems imminent.

Although a stage win for Ullrich was out of the question - that prize went to Spanish climber Carlos Sastre - coming on top of his devastating time-trial performance on Friday, the German's seven-second advantage at the line is yet another major psychological blow in his efforts to topple the Texan.

"I haven't had time yet to recover from the big effort I made in Friday's time-trial," Armstrong, who lost 96 seconds to Ullrich in the 47km race against the clock, explained.

"I was actually expecting to have a harder day today because I felt terrible at the start, so I'm not overly disappointed. It could have been worse." With Ullrich more than able to match the American in the mountains as well as against the clock, the two biggest rivals for the 2003 Tour had spent most of the previous climb, the Pailheries, watching and waiting.

Ullrich's blue-jerseyed cohorts from the Bianchi team had shredded the lead group on the lower slopes, reducing it to just 15 riders - Britain's David Millar, suffering from a throat and chest infection, was among the victims. But Armstrong countered the German's assault by getting one of his team-mates, Manolo Beltran, to set the pace at the front.

While Sastre, followed by fellow-Spaniard Juan Miguel Mercado, galloped off in search of a stage win, Armstrong, despite sweating heavily as the temperature brushed 40 degrees, remained close to the front of the chasing group, well aware that his two main challengers overall, Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov, had not yet made a move.

But when Armstrong ordered Jose Luis Rubiera, his one remaining rider from an early attack, to drop back and wait for him on the last climb, it became clear that the American was not having a good day.

His favourite mountain domestique, Roberto Heras, could barely stay with him at the front of the group. And, even worse, Rubiera was unable to respond when the Basque Haimar Zubeldia, a distant threat overall, charged up the road. Instead, while Armstrong was forced to respond to that challenge in person, the next, by Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov was too much for the American.

Maintaining a steady pace, Ullrich sensed the moment had come to strike a definitive blow for the yellow jersey - which he last held back in 1998, the year after he had taken the Tour. Tearing past the Kazakh, Ullrich then ploughed onwards and upwards towards the finish, rapidly passing a floundering Mercado, and gaining a 12-second bonus for second place on the line.

"I am more than satisfied with this result," said Ullrich. "I never thought Armstrong would show any weakness."

After breaking his collarbone in two places 12 days ago, Massachusetts-born Tyler Hamilton found the going too tough shortly before his fellow-American Armstrong cracked, sliding to fifth place.

Furthermore, if the margin between the first three overall is a mere minute - remarkably close after more than 2,200km of racing - the fourth-placed rider, Haimar Zubeldia, is now more than four minutes back and no longer a real threat.

The opportunities for Ullrich to claw back yet more time on Armstrong and perhaps overtake him even before next Saturday's decisive final time-trial are numerous.

Today's 191.5km stage between Saint Girons and Loudenvielle is just the first, taking the riders over no less than seven classified climbs. Then on Monday comes the hardest Pyrenean stage of them all - the 11km ascent to Luz Ardiden.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'