Alpine analysis: Armstrong firmly in charge at Tour de France

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

As soon as the Tour de France hit the Alps, Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) took back the maillot jaune. For the 72nd time in his career, the tough Texan donned his favourite colour on the podium in Courchevel. The last time Armstrong raced up Courchevel was in 2000, when he was 4th on the stage, 0'55 behind a brilliant Marco Pantani who won his last ever bike race that July 18th. On Stage 9, as the Alps began, as he has in his previous six Tour wins, Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team tackled the first real climb of the Tour with the intention of doing as much damage as possible to his adversaries. And once again, his tough guy tactics worked to perfection.

Armstrong is always prepared for the first mountain stage at the Tour de France, and as in Sestrières in 1999, Hautacam in 2000, l'Alpe d'Huez in 2001 and La Mongie in 2002 and 2004, Armstrong took major time from his closest adversaries. T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich, Andreas Klöden and Alex Vinokourov and CSC's Ivan Basso all lost time to Armstrong on Stage 10. On the road to Courchevel, Armstrong simply mopped-up his key competitors in a grande lessive (big washing), putting him firmly in the driver's seat to win his seventh consecutive Tour de France.

After a superb solo win in the Vosges Mountains on Stage 9 to Mulhouse, maillot a pois Rasmussen had another super day in the mountains on Stage 10 in the Alps, The Rabobank climber finished third in Courchevel and moved up to 2nd on GC, just 0'38 behind Armstrong. CSC's Ivan Basso hung tough on Stage 10 after coming off the Armstrong's group with 8km to go, losing 1'02 and finishing 5th, but the Italian moved up to 3rd on GC. T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich lost 2'14 and dropped to 8th on GC at 4'02, just 0'14 ahead of his teammate Klöden. Vinokourov had a bad day on Stage 10, dropping off the pace of the front group halfway up the Courchevel ascent and ended up losing 5'18 and dropped out of the top 10 on GC. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) was 6th on the stage and rode with intelligence to maintain his contender status on GC.

25 year old phenom Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) took his 6th race win of the 2005 season, on Stage 10 in Courchevel, his biggest career win ever. Nicknamed l'Imbattito (unbeatable) since he terrorized junior cycling in his native Murcia region of Spain, Valverde showed superb climbing skills to go with his blazing sprint.

Stage 11 to Briançon was featured a long break containing two GC contenders, Kazakhi cruncher Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile Team) and Colombian Santi Botero (Phonak Hearing Systems). They were the one-two in Briançon; after a bad day to Courchevel like Vino, Botero counterattacked and moved to 11th to 6th, while Vino regained some of the time he lost the day before and moved into 12th, 4'47 behind Lance Armstrong.

Thus, after the two major Alpine stages, Lance Armstrong put time into his two main rivals for the 2005 Tour title, Basso and Ullrich. Ullrich was one and a half minutes behind Armstrong going into Stage 10 and 4 minutes behind coming out, even if he did not lose any more time in Stage 11. Ivan Basso (CSC), third in last year's Tour de France, has managed to limit his damage to Armstrong and only lost his third place on GC when Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) took a time bonus in Briançon to move ahead of the Italian talent.

There was no change in the Tour GC after Stage 12 to Digne-les-Bains, so any change in the status of the 2005 Tour's GC will only come after Saturday's first Pyrenean Stage 14 to Ax-3-Domaines atop the Plateau de Bonascre.

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