PLA D’ADET, France Lance Armstrong’s tour through the Tour de France is following a familiar pattern: a slow first week, convincing runs in the mountains and overall victory.
Armstrong assumed control of the race yesterday, taking the leader’s yellow jersey with seven days of racing remaining.
After outclassing his rivals in the Alps, Armstrong left them stranded in the Pyrenees, where his third stage victory brought him closer to a third straight Tour title.
Armstrong had trailed his major rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, for much of the final climb. Then, in the closing stretch, the two-time champion sprinted ahead, crossing the finish line a minute ahead of Ullrich.
“We were all confident that we would get the [yellow] jersey,” said Armstrong, who started the stage in third place. “The tactics worked our way.”
Following his third stage victory in this year’s Tour, Armstrong’s lead over the fourth-place Ullrich grew to 5 minutes, 13 seconds. All three wins came in the mountain stages, which began Tuesday. Before hitting the Alps, Armstrong wasn’t in the top 20.
His advantage over Ullrich means he is in position to win the race when it ends in Paris on July 29. Only today’s stage between Tarbes and Luz-Ardiden the last mountain leg is likely to have a major impact on the race standings.
Armstrong completed the difficult 120.47-mile stretch from Foix to Pla d’Adet in 5:44:22. Ullrich was second and Spain’s Joseba Beloki third.
Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, who led for most of the race, faded in the final stretch and finished seventh. Compatriot Francois Simon, who started the stage as the leader, was 31st and dropped to third in the standings, behind Armstrong and Kazakstan’s Andrei Kivilev, who finished 10th.
Armstrong, his U.S. Postal teammate Roberto Heras and Ullrich broke from the front pack as the race approached the last of six tough climbs. With about four miles to go, Ullrich passed between the two U.S. Postal riders and overtook them.
Heras, from Spain, dropped back, but Armstrong gave chase. A few minutes later, he moved in front, then suddenly increased his pace, leaving the Team Telekom rider far back. He then overtook Jalabert.
It was the third time Armstrong beat Ullrich in the closing stretch of a mountain stage in this year’s Tour. He also was faster than the German in an uphill time trial in the Alps.
“I tried everything that was possible,” said Ullrich, the 1997 champion. “I went to my limit, nothing more was possible. I have to wait for a black day for Armstrong, otherwise he is unbeatable.”
Ullrich crashed but was not injured in the fast ride down the Col de Peyresourde mountain pass, the fourth climb of the day.
Leading Armstrong by several yards, he missed a bend to the left and rode straight ahead, passing behind a safety barrier and down a steep embankment. His rear wheel upended and he disappeared from sight.
He emerged seconds later, carrying his bike over his shoulder, and immediately resumed racing.
“I was going down at about 50 mph and my brakes weren’t working that well,” Ullrich said.
He caught Armstrong a few minutes later and the two spoke briefly.
“I asked him if he was OK,” said Armstrong, who slowed to allow Ullrich to catch up. “It looked like a bad crash. I decided that the correct thing to do was to wait.”
After the stage, Armstrong reacted to a comment from Jalabert, who said the winner made the race “look easy.”
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You hear a lot of comments about ‘he makes it look easy,’ or ‘his face shows no effort.’
“Come look at my face in January when I’m trail-running on my property in Austin, Texas, and I’m hurting like a dog. It’s an ugly face. I’d rather have the face then and feel good here. It’s called sacrifice.”
Armstrong dedicated the win to former Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli. Yesterday’s stage took riders past a memorial marking the spot where the Italian crashed fatally in the 1995 Tour. Armstrong also competed that year.
“I dedicate this victory to Casartelli,” Armstrong said. “When we passed [the memorial] today, I decided that I was going to win.”