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Sat, Jul.17.2004:10:02 PM

Stage 13: Lannemezan-Plateau de Beille

07-17-04.stage13 profile

Armstrong winsArmstrong Won! More on that later, but first, and perhaps more importantly, lets talk about those who didn't win today.

Every year there is a stage that is a decisive in the overall race. Sometimes they signal a shift in momentum, or an important stage victory, or the first time in the lead. Sometimes they are the stage where everything gets blown apart and one rider remains, and I believe that this stage falls into that category, not just because Armstrong got his first stage victory, but because there were so many casualties. Of the pre-race favorites, here's how they now stand:

  • Hamilton: Dropped out. The man who fought through last year's Tour with a broken collarbone, finally showed us his limits of pain and dropped out with lower back pain caused by his crash from a several stages before. I'm sure he'll be lobbying hard for new rules regarding sprint finishes now that this is the second year in a row his Tour ambitions have been cut short.
  • Ullrich: he'll be lucky to finish in second after losing over two minutes to Armstrong today
  • Heras: Where you at? A: Over 21 minutes back.
  • Mayo: Buzz favorite after his amazing Dauphine performance: 37 minutes back.

basso and ArmstrongSo who are the main contenders now besides Armstrong: Basso, Totschnig, Kloden, and Mancebo. No one expected this list of names, and at this point, they aren't really challenging Armstrong as much as they are fighting for 2nd and 3rd place on the podium. Basso is the clear leader of this pack, having stuck on Armstrong's wheel yesterday to get the stage win, and today sticking on his wheel again for second. He's the only rider in the whole Tour that's matched Armstrong.

voecklerThere's one other name that deserves mention, even though he's not an overall favorite: Voeckler. People are already using the term 'hero' to describe this guy, and although I have a tough time using that term to describe bike racing, this guy's performance has been extraordinary and has won over everyone's hearts. He truly loves having the yellow jersey and appreciates the honor that it bestows, and he is willing to push himself far beyond his ability to hold onto it for as long as possible. No racer has provided more excitement in the past two stages: every acceleration seems to put him in danger as he falls back, his face is contorted in pain, but he'll reach down, stand up, and push himself forward to rejoin the lead group. I thought he was done for when US Postal pushed a split and Voeckler fell way back, but the next thing I knew he was sitting on Azevedo's wheel just behind the US Postal Blue Train. Voeckler's ride has been the sort of inspiring performance you hope for in a bike race, much like Isidro Nozal's performance in the Vuelta last year, and when Voeckler crossed the finish line with a huge smile on his face, you couldn't help but cheer on the pride of France.

Azevedo ArmstrongSo now, Armstrong. Armstrong looks as good as he did two or three years ago, and his team is as good as it was last year and the year before (Hincapie, Landis, Chechu, and Azevedo put in amazing pulls). In other words, Armstrong looks absolutely undefeatable. Gone are any signs of weakness from last year. Last year the contenders were able to organize themselves and issue constant attacks against Armstrong and expose signs of weakness. This year, the US Postal riders are setting such a hard pace that none of the GC contenders have even been able to issue attacks, and when the Blue Train does pull off, Armstrong himself steps up the pace and leads the final charge up the mountain that, so far, only Basso has been able to follow.

Armstrong basso crowdFor the second time, the Plateau de Beille has proved to be a important stage victory for Armstrong. In a repeat of yesterday's action, US Postal set a fast tempo, with Azevedo serving as the last rider pulling Armstrong along. This time, though, there was more attrition, and it was just Azevedo, Armstrong, and Basso riding up front after having caught the breakaway riders. Then it was just Armstrong and Basso for the rest of the climb, shooting through the raucous Basque crowd. On the final bend to the finish line Armstrong shot ahead and snagged the victory. I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a bit of tit-for-tat with Basso, whom Armstrong didn't contest yesterday. According to news reports, Armstrong let Basso win yesterday due to a friendship that has developed over Basso's mother having cancer. Today, however, it was Basso that did little to challenge Armstrong's final sprint over the line.