Tour De France: Peloton reflects on awesome Armstrong

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The Independent Online

Lance Armstrong took a huge and probably decisive step towards the history books and a record-breaking sixth consecutive Tour de France win when he shed all bar one of his rivals en route to the mountain-top finish of La Mongie.

Lance Armstrong took a huge and probably decisive step towards the history books and a record-breaking sixth consecutive Tour de France win when he shed all bar one of his rivals en route to the mountain-top finish of La Mongie.

Since 1999, Armstrong attacking on the first mountain stage of each Tour has become a tradition, and this year was no exception. Only Ivan Basso, a 26-year-old Italian, was able to stay with the Texan, and, as if in recognition of his prowess, Armstrong allowed the CSC rider to cross the line ahead of him to claim the stage win.

But Basso was the only rival not to knuckle under when Armstrong and his US Postal troops laid down a ferocious acceleration halfway up the rain-soddened slopes leading to La Mongie.

Among the big names Tyler Hamilton, fourth in last year's Tour, was first to crack, then Jan Ullrich began to weave from side to side and then Roberto Heras was left reeling in Armstrong's wake. By the summit, the closest of the top contenders, Ullrich, found himself 2min 30sec adrift, his and others' challenge in tatters.

As if to symbolise the dramatic shift in power towards the American, Armstrong put his team to work on the 180km (112 miles) approach south from Castelsarrasin to the foot of the Aspin, the first climb of the day.

As skies darkened and rain fell in buckets on La Mongie, when the road began to steepen, George Hincapie moved to the front of a five-strong string of blue-clad US Postal riders.

That put paid to any significant attacks, except for the overly-keen Dane Michael Rasmussen - reeled in a third of the way up La Mongie - and through the drizzle all that could be seen was a line of cowed contenders trying to hold Hincapie's pace. By the summit, they were down to a bare 50.

Then on the lower slopes of La Mongie, as the clouds finally lifted, Armstrong repeated the formula but at an ominously higher pace.

First of the main men to fall out of contention thanks to Hincapie's charge was Tyler Hamilton, who suddenly reeled to the left-hand side of the road.

Allegedly affected by the recent death of his dog, Tugboat, from stomach cancer - so much so he wore a black armband on Friday's stage - Hamilton was clearly in no mood for battle, and as the peloton shrank to barely a dozen riders behind the Postal train, the Phonak leader made no attempt to try and bridge the gap.

Then at the same time, France's two idols of the 2004 Tour, race leader Thomas Voeckler and stage 9 winner Richard Virenque, simultaneously found themselves adrift of the main group. Armstrong's support had also shrunk to just the new Portuguese recruit Jose Azevedo, but his grip on the race was tightening steadily nonetheless.

But the biggest fish was about to be netted by Postal's aggressive strategy: 6km from the finish, Ullrich, his face a mask of pain, slid backwards like a stone, barely able to hold the wheel of team-mate Giuseppe Guerini. Ahead, the Texan and Azevedo simply forged on.

It was as if the 2003 Tour, when Armstrong had been within 18 seconds of losing the jersey at one point to Ullrich, had never happened. None of the bare half-dozen riders clutching at the Texan's coat-tails could be counted as a threat.

Then a timid attempt at rebellion by the Spaniards Carlos Sastre, attacking for a second time, and Francisco Mancebo brought Armstrong himself to the fore, scattering all behind him barring Sastre's team-mate Basso as he stomped on the pedals 3km from the line. The two riders moved into the snow tunnels with Sastre just 100 metres ahead, but the Spaniard was flailing and quickly fell behind the Italian and American when they upped the pace a little further.

Then in the final kilometre Armstrong and Basso began talking, agreeing that the Italian - a good friend of the American's and whose mother, like Armstrong in the past, suffers from cancer - should take the stage. Presumably grateful merely to be there, the Italian crossed the line with a shout of joy, but Armstrong, just a bike-length behind him, knew that he had inflicted a knock-out blow on the remainder of the field and the bedraggled contenders had the look of defeated men about them as they finally reached the line.

Of the favourites Mayo, unable to respond to the tens of thousands of Basque fans who had lined the route, was the closest, 1min 9sec back in ninth place. Ullrich finished 2min 30sec adrift and Hamilton a massive 3min 27sec. Armstrong was diplomatic about the advantage, simply saying he was "surprised the gaps had been so big. Ullrich took it on the chin but he always bounces back."

Overall, the true hierarchy of the Tour is growing steadily clearer, even if Voeckler - who was so exhausted when he reached the finish he nearly collided with the barriers - is still leader, 5min 24sec up on Armstrong, now second overall, while Basso, who has the honour of being the Texan's most dangerous rival from this point onwards, is 1min 9sec adrift of the American.

Asked if he could beat Armstrong, the Italian showed no sign of having his head in the Pyrenean clouds whatsoever: "Lance is very strong," he answered simply.

But Armstrong himself has other headaches to deal with, centring on his US Postal team-mate Pavel Padrnos, who is due to stand trial in late October for alleged possession of doping substances in the 2001 Giro. However, as has been the case since 1999, when Armstrong finds himself under scrutiny off or on the bike he responds by fighting back more strongly.

All that remains, in Armstrong's game plan, is for Voeckler to crack completely on today's second Pyrenean stage and for him to return to yellow. If the first mountain stage is anything to go by, that - and the rest of the race - will prove to be a mere formality.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly.