L’ALPE D’HUEZ, France (AP) Lance Armstrong took a commanding step toward a third straight Tour de France title, bluffing his rivals yesterday to win a grueling climb in the French Alps.
The Texan won the 10th stage his first stage victory of the race and moved from 23rd place to fourth in the overall standings.
“It’s a mystical stage that we wanted to win,” he said. “It’s probably the most famous climb in all of cycling.”
His performance clearly signaled that after a slow start he is ready to take control in the mountains again.
He leads main rival Jan Ullrich of Germany by 2 minutes, 34 seconds with 10 stages remaining in cycling’s three-week showcase that ends July 29 in Paris.
Armstrong acknowledged he had duped his opponents on the first mountain climb of the race, grimacing as he stayed in the back of the main pack.
“In cycling, everybody is watching,” he said. “I know that [team directors] are all sitting back there in the cars watching TV, and I can hear when a motorcycle comes up with a TV camera on it. Sometimes you have to play that game a little bit.”
Armstrong completed the 130-mile stretch that began at Aix-les-Bains in 6:23:47. Ullrich was second, 1:59 off the pace, and Spain’s Joseba Beloki was third.
Francois Simon of France took the leader’s yellow jersey from Stuart O’Grady of Australia. Kazak rider Andrei Kivilev is second overall and could threaten Armstrong.
Armstrong trailed Ullrich in the first two mountain passes. He then raised concerns when he grimaced in apparent pain at the Col de la Madeleine. At the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez, however, Armstrong and U.S. Postal Service teammate Roberto Heras moved to the front of the main pack, with Ullrich just behind.
Armstrong took one look back, staring into Ullrich’s sunglasses, then broke away.
“We decided to play poker a bit,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong dominated the opening mountain stages of the previous two Tours, and had been widely expected to do so again.
As his rivals struggled up the 3,712-foot climb, the American’s pace quickened. Within minutes, he opened a 30-second lead over Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion.
He then overtook Frenchman Laurent Roux, who had led from the 3.7-mile mark and had a six-minute advantage at the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez.
Dodging fans who crowded either side of the route and came within inches of him, Armstrong powered to the summit.
Armstrong said he worked out his strategy after the start. He said he was unable to communicate with U.S. Postal sports director Johan Bruyneel for most of the race because his radio was broken.
Ullrich was unprepared when Armstrong moved into the lead.
“We all know that he doesn’t like accelerations,” Armstrong said. “That’s not good for him.”
Ullrich seemed rattled.
“I don’t know what I should do,” he said. “I did everything well except for Lance. I’m in super shape. Maybe he will have a breakdown.”
Today’s stage is a rare uphill individual time trial from Grenoble to Chamrousse in which Armstrong is expected to excel. But Armstrong wonders if yesterday’s ride will take something out of him.
“I might pay for that effort,” he said. “I could lose two minutes tomorrow. I hope not.”