Tour de France: Armstrong turns on the power

The postman delivers the bad news to his rivals as he reaches for a record-breaking sixth win

A second consecutive knock-out blow by Lance Armstrong has simultaneously earned the American the 17th Tour stage win of his career, lifted the Texan to within 12 seconds of the yellow jersey - and all butremoved the last dregs of suspense in the race.

A second consecutive knock-out blow by Lance Armstrong has simultaneously earned the American the 17th Tour stage win of his career, lifted the Texan to within 12 seconds of the yellow jersey - and all butremoved the last dregs of suspense in the race.

Barring the Italian Ivan Basso, again the only rider to handle the pressure imposed by Armstrong on the Tour's second day in the Pyrenees, all of the American's rivals were already left reeling five kilometres from the summit of the monster Plateau-de-Beille climb.

From there the only two questions remaining were whether Armstrong would once more hand Basso, a close friend, the stage, and whether the young Frenchman Thomas Voeckler would manage to cling on to the Tour lead for another day.

The answer to the first came when Armstrong zipped past Basso's right in the final metres to repeat his 2002 Plateau-de-Beille win, and the second when Voeckler limped across the line just over four minutes later, to remain in yellow by a mere 22 seconds over the American.

But Armstrong's display of power was so convincing that barring the three elements of bike racing even the American cannot control - accident, illness or injury - nobody can stop him from moving into yellow in 72 hours' time at the summit of the Alpe D'Huez, and then keeping it all the way to Paris for a record-breaking sixth win the following Sunday.

"Today was the hardest stage of the Tour," Armstrong said. "So I worked together with Ivan to drop all the other rivals. It was in both our interests."

The weeding out process for Armstrong actually started in the first hour of the 205.5km stage when Haimar Zubeldia, fifth in the 2003 Tour, quit because of knee trouble, and last year's Best Young Rider, Russia's Denis Menchov followed.

But the most significant loss prior to Plateau-de-Beille was the leading contender Tyler Hamilton, who climbed into his team car after just 79 kilometres, the back pain from a crash a week before in Angers too much to bear.

"He is so strong mentally we thought he might get through," his team manager Urs Freuler commented about Hamilton's first abandon from a major Tour. "But he could hardly stand on the pedals."

But others were to suffer equally badly, with the most humiliating defeat for Iban Mayo. Having lost 90 seconds to Armstrong's group on the relatively minor Latrape climb, the 2003 Alpe D'Huez winner then got off his bike on the tougher following ascent, the Agnes.

However, harsh words from team manager Julian Gorospe forced the tiny Basque climber back on to his steed. He lost over 40 minutes.

In trouble on the same climb, Voeckler managed to regain the 15-strong group surrounding Armstrong on the long descent to the foot of the Plateau-de-Beille, but he was soon to be all but flattened by the Postal steamroller.

A prolonged drive by Jose Luis Rubiera began to inflict damage at the rear end of the group as soon as the road steepened, and after four kilometres Voeckler found himself out the back.

With the group now down to a bare half dozen, when Portugal's Jose Azevedo took over for Armstrong, the acceleration proved fatal for an even bigger enemy of the Texan's, Jan Ullrich.

The 1997 Tour winner had refused to explain to reporters what had happened the day before when he lost over two minutes, but whatever the reason, his sagging shoulders and inability to lift himself even briefly out of the saddle told an eloquent enough tale in themselves. He was to lose 2:42 to Armstrong, with any chance of a podium place in ruins.

By this point Armstrong was left with just Azevedo and Basso for company at the head of the field: a slight acceleration by the Texan as they forged through the lines of thousands of Basque fans - looking in vain for a Mayo win - was all it needed for the trio to be reduced to two.

Armstrong and the Italian promptly realised that here was a golden opportunity to gain a near-unsurmountable advantage on the rest of the field, and they took turns to handle the pressure at the front.

If their advantage rose as a consequence from two minutes to nearly three on Ullrich by the line it could, according to Armstrong, have been even greater "if the motorbikes or cars hadn't blocked us in a little and stopped us from going faster."

"But in any case, I never expected my big rivals to be so far behind so soon, although Basso" - just 1:17 behind Armstrong - "is still a threat. He'll do a good ride in the Alps."

That may be the case, but all the signs are that Armstrong will do a far better one.

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