Tour de France: Armstrong puts victory ahead of largesse

It was one of the rare occasions that Lance Armstrong did not get what he wanted in this year's Tour - but still the Texan came out on top. He had intended to gift the last Alpine stage to his team-mate Floyd Landis, but in the event, a last-second charge for the line enabled Armstrong to inch ahead of his German rival Andreas Klöden in a five-man sprint, thereby gaining his fourth stage win of the year and 20th of his career.

It was one of the rare occasions that Lance Armstrong did not get what he wanted in this year's Tour - but still the Texan came out on top. He had intended to gift the last Alpine stage to his team-mate Floyd Landis, but in the event, a last-second charge for the line enabled Armstrong to inch ahead of his German rival Andreas Klöden in a five-man sprint, thereby gaining his fourth stage win of the year and 20th of his career.

Distributing largesse is not Armstrong's style - the last time he tried to share out the glory was back in 2002 with his former team-mate Roberto Heras in the Pyrenees, but the Spaniard could not keep up with his leader. However, after Landis had single-handedly shredded the field to three remaining rivals and his leader on the ascent of the last major col of the race, the Croix Fry, the American no longer felt under threat.

"I know how hard it is to ride tempo all the way up a climb and only have four guys with you at the top but he managed it and I wanted him to win," Armstrong said. "On the ascent I asked him, 'Floyd, how quick can you go downhill?' He said 'Really quick', so I answered 'Run like you stole something then, allez, allez'."

Landis made a credible attempt to take the money and run, taking such prodigious risks on the first, steepest section of the 12 kilometre descent that Armstrong himself was briefly dropped. However, T-Mobile's two best riders, Jan Ullrich and Klöden, clearly regarded the Landis manoeuvre as akin to daylight robbery and tore round an interminable series of hairpins in order to pull Landis back under control.

Much hand-waving and gesturing followed, with Armstrong clearly annoyed, but the T-Mobile pair were unwilling to collaborate, and the five reached the final kilometres still together and watching each other like hawks.

When Landis took off yet again on a slight rise close to the finish, he was too slow for Klöden, who darted away from the back of the five-man pack to open up a gap of 20 metres.

Just when it seemed the German national champion had T-Mobile's first stage-win of this year's Tour in his grasp, Armstrong galloped past the 29-year-old to make it a hat-trick of Alpine stages.

Asked afterwards if amassing so many wins meant he was the new "Cannibal" of cycling - a reference to the all-time great Eddy Merckx, who never let his rivals take even symbolic victories - Armstrong responded: "No, but this year there are no gifts. This is the biggest bike race in the world, and I want to win."

The Belgian is about to be beaten by Armstrong in terms of Tours won, but he still leads comfortably in stage wins, with 34 victories. While the Texan's record-breaking sixth Tour victory is still three stages away from becoming a reality, for the Frenchman Richard Virenque the celebrations could start earlier. Yesterday's stage saw him take an unbreakable lead in the King of the Mountains competition - his seventh, and also a Tour record - thanks to his forming part of a day-long three-man break over four cols.

Landis and his Postal team-mates finally reeled Virenque in on the last col, but the 34-year-old, who made no attempt to follow their pace, had none the less already amassed enough points to be sure of the polka-dot jersey in Paris.

Ever conscious of gaining publicity even after he had been dropped by the yellow jersey group, Virenque then went through a series of exaggerated gestures of relief, grimaces and smirks to the television cameras showing that he had finally achieved his 2004 Tour objective.

"I've left my mark on the Tour now," Virenque said. Armstrong, meanwhile, has it under his boot.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly

TOUR DETAILS

Stage 17 (204.5km, Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand Bornand): 1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal 6hr 11min 52sec; 2 A Klöden (Ger) T-Mobile Team same time; 3 J Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile Team +0:01sec; 4 I Basso (It) Team CSC s/t; 5 F Landis (US) US Postal +0:13; 6 A Merckx (Bel) Lotto-Domo +1min 01sec; 7 L Leipheimer (US) Rabobank s/t; 8 C Sastre (Sp) Team CSC +1:02; 9 M Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank; 10 G Totschnig (Aut) Gerolsteiner; 11 J Azevedo (Por) US Postal all s/t. General classification: 1 Armstrong 74hr 04min 56sec; 2 Basso +4min 09sec; 3 Klöden +5:11; 4 Ullrich +8:08; 5 Azevedo +10:41; 6 F Mancebo Pirez (Sp) Illes Balears-Banesto +11:45. Team standings: 1 T-Mobile Team 220hr 17min 09sec; 2 US Postal +5min 12sec; 3 Team CSC +10.49. Points standings: 1 R McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo 225pts; 2 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 213; 3 E Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile 212. King of the mountains: 1 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step-Davitamon 226pts; 2 Armstrong 168; 3 Basso 119. Young rider: 1 T Voeckler (Fr) Brioches La Boulangère 74:26.08; 2 V Karpets (Rus) Illes Balears-Banesto +45sec; 3 S Casar (Fr) FDJeux.com +1min 56sec.

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