Once again, Armstrong on top of things

Valverde surprises as Illes Balears becomes the #1 threat to Discovery

Last Saturday's crisis is now all but forgotten as Lance Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team were once again on top of things in the first and decisive mountain stage of the 2005 Tour de France.

Unconcerned by the early break of seven riders, the new, improved Blue Train rode their hearts out for their number one man, and when his last rider Yaroslav Popovych dropped him off with 10 kilometres to go, just seven other riders remained. From there on in, Armstrong was all might and power, and his repeated accelerations halved that number yet again to a fearsome foursome - mountains leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and the Illes Balears pair of Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo tagging on for the ride. Just before the finish line at Courchevel 2000, the American all-star attacked again but he couldn't flick Valverde, who was a strong though surprise winner and the day's big mover, shooting up the leaderboard from 24th to a top-five position on GC.

"I would like to find a word to express what I'm feeling inside, but it's just impossible," said the highly-emotional stage winner. "It's just the greatest thing that's happened in my life.

"Before I came here, I had a dream to win a stage and today I've realised that dream. So now I'll go on working for the team, because Mancebo is the leader of the team and he is very strong too. But it will be difficult, because they are so many good riders and Armstrong is as good as he was in the past, so it will be difficult to beat him," said the 25 year-old Valverde.

With the worst yet to come, question marks now loom large over the T-Mobile camp. Throughout the final climb, '97 champ Jan Ullrich's face was contorted in pain, shepherded virtually the whole way by loyal lieutenant Andreas Klöden, while Alexandre Vinokourov experienced his worst day on the bike so far in this year's race, losing almost five and half minutes by the finish line.

Said the dazed and confused champion of Kazakhstan at the finish line: "I lost a lot of time on GC today, but I hope I will be better tomorrow. I will attack again. It's hard, but I don't think we've lost the Tour now. I hope that Jan and Klödi were better today... I don't know anything yet. Who won?"

"I'm not sure what happened in the mountains," Vinokourov told Reuters a little later on. "It's been a very bad day for me. The first climb was tough, but we got over that. On the second one, I completely lost it."

T-Mobile's team doctor believed he was the victim of hunger-flat, but the 31 year-old denied it. "This wasn't the Vino we all know," was all team director Mario Kummer could say.

"It was the first big day for our team," admitted Armstrong. "They're a super team and set a great pace for me at the front of the climb. I had good legs today, but I want to say thanks to Rasmussen, Valverde and Mancebo - without them I might not have got the result I wanted."

Asked if the somewhat over-hyped rivalry between Discovery and CSC motivated him, partially in reference to comments made by CSC team manager Bjarne Riis, the 33 year-old Texan said he's tried to stay out of the past week's frenzy concerning the two teams - or any other team, for that matter - saying it's neither respectful nor honest to diss another side.

"And that's not reality," he added. "So do you read those things and save them on the hard drive? Of course. But at the end of the day, we have to race against the riders - not the director. But for sure... I save them on the hard drive when I read it."

So is this a maillot jaune Armstrong plans on keeping? "Well, I have to talk to Johan about that," he said diplomatically. "Now, we're in a good position with regards to some of the main rivals, so we'll have to protect that and that might mean protecting the jersey. But we'll have to see how it goes - a team can only do so much in a Tour like this."

While Mancebo's performance wasn't so much of a surprise, the 29 year-old Spaniard now lying seventh overall, Armstrong did have something to say about the other two riders with him in those final six kilometres. "Anybody who was in the front of this climb today has to be considered a contender for the overall victory, a contender for the podium," he said.

"What we saw today was confirmation. No more seven-minute breakaways for Michael Rasmussen; he's a damn good climber and we have to watch him now. Valverde was impressive... I was surprised to see him there," admitted Armstrong.

"He's a difficult rider to classify, because he's also very fast and he's also very strong. A guy like him - and I'm not blowing smoke - could be the future of cycling, because he's a complete rider and he's always been good. Valverde was good from the first day he showed up and he's proven it here. The only thing he would have to work on for this race is his time trial, but I suspect he'll do it [in the future]."

How it unfolded

After a early Tuesday morning test of 33 riders from Lampre-Caffita, AG2R, CSC and Discovery Channel, one rider was found unfit to work and didn't start today: 2003 double world U23 champ Evgeni Petrov (Lampre-Caffita). Originally slated for 192.5 km, Stage 10 was shortened by 11.5km due to a farmers' protest and officially started nineteen minutes late after being delayed by the protest at 12:34 in Brignoud on a warm, sunny morning.

After a series of early attacks, a group of riders got away after 6km near Goncelin, including '05 Paris-Nice stage winner Posthuma, mullet man Broche Brochard (Bouygues Telecom), Krivtsov (Ag2r), 2005 Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under winner Sanchez (Liberty Seguros), Bortolami (Lampre-Cafitta), Isasi (Euskaltel) and Facci (Fassa Bortolo). As none of these riders were a threat on GC, maillot jaune Voigt's CSC squad let them ride away and already after 29km at the first intermediate sprint in Detrier (km 29), Bortolami took the sprint as the race entered the Savoie region.

At the feed zone in Grignon after 65km, break rider Bortolami's Lampre-Cafitta teammate Glomser abandoned, with the break now nine minutes up the road. Then it was through the streets of winter Olympics city Albertville and up to the first slopes of the first climb of the day, Credit Agricole was leading the chase with the ambition of local lad Christophe Moreau taking over the maillot jaune from Voigt. Brochard was maillot jaune virtuel and he and big Posthuma were riding the tempo.

Just after Beaufort, the 20.1 km ascent of Cormet de Roselend began, a Cat 1 ascent with an average gradient of 6.1%. Brochard was still maillot jaune virtuel, while five minutes behind, Garzelli (Liquigas-Bianchi), Jaksche (Liberty Seguros), Pereiro (Phonak), Mancebo and Valverde (Illes Balears), Sevilla (T-Mobile) and Sastre (CSC) went on the attack, while Credit Agricole was riding chase and Iban Mayo was dropped. This dangerous group came back after a short chase but the acceleration split the peloton, with maillot jaune Voigt hanging on to the back of the main 60 man group. Azevedo and Rubiera (Discovery Channel) were riding at the front of this group along with Sevilla, but no hard chase was underway. Voigt was struggling mightily to get back on the main peloton as Discovery Channel was up front in control of the situation. 2km from the top of Roselend, Pereiro attacked again, followed by Jaksche.

At the summit of the Cormet de Roselend with 63km to go, Brochard, Posthuma, Sanchez and Facci passed over 0'50 ahead of Bortolami and Krivtsov, with Pereiro and Jaksche at 3'19 and the peloton at 3'30. As the Tour began the long 20km descent to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, black storm clouds were swirling around la Saulire, a thousand meters above the ski station of Courchevel across the Isere River valley. Brochard decided to attack on the descent and left his three companions behind. The Discovery Channel team was on the front slowing the pace for Popovych, who had crashed and had to chase back on.

At the second intermediate sprint in Bourg-Saint-Maurice with 54km to go, Bouygues man Brochard boogied through to take the points 20 ahead of chasing Sanchez and the now four chasers, as Bortolami and Isasi had bridged back up to Posthuma and Krivstov. Pereiro and Jaksche were at 2'40 and closing fast with the peloton at 4'55, where maillot jaune Voigt and Popovych was back, the Ukrainian giving a thumbs-up with his left side covered in dirt and blood streaming from his left elbow. With less than 30km to go to the base of the Courchevel ascent, Discovery Channel hit the front of the groupe maillot jaune, flexing their muscles before the main battle began. Pereiro and Jaksche caught the four chasers with 40km to go and the now nine man break had Sanchez and Pereiro doing most of the work.

On the long gradual downhill along the windy Isere River Valley along the N90 to the base of the final climb to Courchevel, Discovery Channel's Noval, Beltran and Padrnos were pounding away, with the break of now just 3'30 up the road. At Moutiers, 6km from the 22.2km 6.2%. average gradient Cat.1 ascent to the mountaintop finish in Courchevel, the situation was stable; Pereiro was powering the break, while Sanchez sat up after riding hard on the front for his teammate Jaksche. Facci cracked suddenly and there were just seven riders up front now with the groupe maillot jaune 2'55 behind.

Since Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Discovery Channel had gradually cranked up the pace and as the Courchevel ascent approached, maillot jaune Voigt began to lose ground. Up front, Krivtsov flatted out of the break, while Pereiro and Jaksche dropped Brochard and the peloton had closed to 2'00 as Chechu, Savoldelli, Hincapie, Popovych and Azevedo were just ahead of a determined looking Lance Armstrong, shadowed by Vinokourov.

4 km into the Courchevel ascent, Jaksche made a solo attack and dropped Pereiro, with the Discovery Channel led chase group at 1'55, while the group of maillot jaune Voigt was at 3'50, so Frenchman Moreau became maillot jaune virtuel . Totschnig, McGee, Zubeldia, Heras, Beloki and Menchov were some of the big names that had come out the back under the infernal rhythm imposed by Armstrong's army. Sastre tried an attack, but Savoldelli rode him down. The pace increased behind Sastre, putting Garzelli, Karpets, Horner, Julich, Botero.

After his effort, Savoldelli peeled off, and Azevedo and Hincapie hit the front, Leipheimer, Basso, Sastre, Ullrich, Vino, Mazzoleni, Rasmussen, Mancebo, Valverde were left with 13km to go, Jaksche was 1'09 up the road as a magnificent George Hincapie pounded on the front with Popo behind and Armstrong sitting third wheel and maillot a pois Rasmussen just behind, waiting for the right time to attack. There were just a dozen riders left up front with 11.5km to go when Popo attacked hard for 300m, then peeled off. This acceleration exploded the front group, as Vino, Ullrich, Klöden, Landis, Leipheimer, Piepoli and Mazzoleni couldn't keep the pace.

A six man group had formed, with Armstrong, Basso, Rasmussen, Evans, Valverde and Mancebo, with Landis, Piepoli and Mazzoleni chasing behind. The tortured visage of Paco Mancebo was forcing and his acceleration dropped Evans. The now five riders rode away as Leipheimer struggled to get back on but couldn't. With 10km to go, Jaksche was caught, while Ullrich was at 0'53, breathing heavily as he suffered from a bruised rib from Sunday's crash. Armstrong attacked with 8km to go, dropping Basso and Mancebo, while an amazing Valverde and maillot a pois Rasmussen hung on. Mancebo came back with 5.5km to go, in the same spot where Marco Pantani had attacked to win in Courchevel five years ago, while Ullrich was at 1'20, with Moreau at 1'48. Armstrong was now maillot jaune virtuel as Mancebo hammered hard on the front.

Klöden and Ullrich were trying to limit their damage 1'30 behind, as Armstrong accelerated again with 4km to go at Courchevel 1800. Basso was dangling there just 0'20 back hoping the front riders would slow so he could get back on. Leipheimer had dropped and was in no-mans land 1'00 behind, while Jaksche was absorbed by the Ullrich group. With 2km left, Basso was at 0'30, while Leipheimer had closed to 0'40, well ahead of the Ullrich group at 1'45. Entering the last kilometre as they came out of the tunnel to the Altiport, the front quintet was watching each other carefully. Rasmussen tried a few accelerations, but with 450m to go, Armstrong jumped between the Danish rider and the barriers on the right, hoping to catch Valverde by surprise. But the Spanish rider covered Armstrong's move and sprinted home to victory, while Armstrong was second and took the race lead.

Stage 11 - Wednesday, July 13: Courchevel-Briançon, 173 km

It's a downhill plunge from Stage 11's start in Courchevel to La Lechere, where the fearsome 25km ascent of the Col de la Madeleine commences, then to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne at the base of the monster double ascent of the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier. After passing the highest point of the 2005 Tour De France at 2645m. and the monument of Tour founder Henri Desgranges, it's a 40km plunge through the Hautes Alpes to a finish in Briançon where Santi Botero (Phonak) will look to repeat his breakthrough win of five years ago.

Stage 11 rated climbs:

Col de la Madeleine (km 55, HC climb, 2000m, 25.4km at 6.1%)
Col du Telegraphe (km 110, Cat. 1 climb, 1566m, 12km at 6.7%)
Col du Galibier (km 133, HC climb, 2645m, 17.5km at 6.9%)

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