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Final stages may seem academic
By wire services
Published July 19, 2005
PAU, France - As the Tour de France rested Monday near the Spain border, the discussion did not: Can anyone snatch Lance Armstrong's comfortably fitting yellow jersey before the race ends Sunday in Paris?
Armstrong's rivals were nearly conceding defeat, acknowledging that few of the remaining six stages provide them a chance to make up enough time to overtake him.
Heading into today's 112.2-mile, 16th stage from Mourenx to Pau, Armstrong leads Italy's Ivan Basso by 2 minutes, 46 seconds, 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich of Germany by 5:58 and Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan by 9:38.
Armstrong has one tough mountain stage in the Pyrenees left in addition to two other modest climbing stages, a flat stage and a time trial.
The riders rested Monday for the first time since two big afternoons in the Alps, two days of rolling roads and a set of rigorous climbs in the Pyrenees.
"I'm not stupid," Basso said. "He's strong. It is finished."
No one from Armstrong's team wanted to tempt the Tour's fickle nature Monday afternoon, but the conventional thinking was that he will be wearing yellow for the seventh straight and final time on the Champs-Elysees.
At this point, Armstrong would have to fall ill or crash out of the race to lose yellow.
"The big opportunities for the main rivals to put time on him is gone," said Johan Bruyneel, director of Armstrong's Discovery Channel team. "But the Tour is the Tour."
Rather than giving up time to his rivals, Armstrong added to his lead last weekend. In the process, Armstrong survived:
An attack by the T-Mobile team Saturday in the first stage in the Pyrenees. Armstrong was isolated on the second-to-last climb as Ullrich and his T-Mobile mountain lieutenants rode to the front of the leader's group and cranked up the tempo. Armstrong held off the attack and finished second to Austria's Georg Totschnig.
Basso's newfound aggressiveness. The leader of Team CSC attacked and attacked and attacked Sunday over the final two climbs of Stage 15, the most difficult outing of the Tour. Despite Basso's combativeness, he couldn't shake Armstrong, and both crossed the finish at Pla d'Adet with the same time.
It remains to be seen whether Basso or the other challengers attack Armstrong today as the group climbs one more "beyond category" ascent before leaving the mountains.
"There are six stages left in the race, and I'll be watching out for any opportunities where I can steal a few seconds here and there," said Ullrich, the one-time champion and five-time runnerup. "My aim now has to be the podium. I can't expect to do any better."
Armstrong and his teammates slept in until midmorning Monday and rode for a couple of hours. They napped, had a massage and then ate an early dinner, preparing for today's stage, which basically circles the Pau countryside.
If Armstrong can avoid trouble, the most compelling race at this Tour now is for the two other spots on the podium. Denmark's Mickael Rasmussen is the wild card in the podium chase. He faltered in the Pyrenees but still is third, 3:09 out of first. Ullrich, who finished off the podium a year ago for the first time in his career, is fourth, 1:49 away from Rasmussen.