Riders take race to the mountains

The Tour de France heads into the Alps, where Lance Armstrong, third overall, excels.

By wire services
Published July 12, 2005

GRENOBLE, France - For Lance Armstrong and his Tour de France challengers, the true test begins now - in the thin air of the Alps, on snaking climbs lined by screaming fans.

"The mountains put everyone back in their place," Armstrong's team manager, Johan Bruyneel, said Monday as the 175 riders left after Week 1 of the three-week race enjoyed their first rest day. "I can't wait to see what will happen."

Only by keeping rivals at bay on the relentlessly long and steep ascents can Armstrong retire at the finish in Paris on July 24 with a seventh consecutive victory. And only by taking the fight to the six-time champion can his challengers hope to break his record streak.

Armstrong heads into today's first Alpine stage from a village near Grenoble to the ski station of Courchevel with a sizable but not invincible lead over his main rivals - Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloeden of the T-Mobile squad, and Italian Ivan Basso of Team CSC.

"Lance is sitting pretty and licking his lips," said Basso's American teammate, Bobby Julich.

To win, challengers must put pressure on Armstrong and his Discovery Channel squad by riding hard in the Alps and in the Pyrenees, which follow at the end of the week. Sitting back and hoping the American collapses is unlikely to be a winning formula: His bad days at previous Tours have been few and far between.

"If you want to beat Lance, if you want to win this Tour, you have to attack, not just follow," Team CSC manager Bjarne Riis said.

The 119.6-mile route to Courchevel has two major climbs, including a long uphill finish, that likely will show which of the main riders truly is in top form and start separating pretenders from genuine contenders.

Armstrong used the mountains in previous Tours to power away from rivals, putting a grip on the race that he kept to Paris. An exception was 2003 - when he struggled but still found a way to win and match the then record of five Tour victories.

There was no ambiguity about his record sixth victory last year. He won all three Alpine stages as well as one of two in the Pyrenees, and topped off his domination by taking the final time trial. That left him free to sip champagne in the saddle as he rode into Paris to claim the winner's yellow jersey.

Vinokourov could prove to be the biggest threat and is hungry for success, having missed the 2004 Tour with an injury. He tested Armstrong, who stands third overall, on Saturday when his teammates failed to match the quick pace on a climb, leaving him alone to fend off Vinokourov's speedy surges.

"If they are not strong I think he has a problem," said Riis, the CSC manager who won the Tour in 1996.