Armstrong leads entering critical Pyrenees stages

Friday, July 15, 2005

MONTPELLIER, France -- Lance Armstrong retained his overall lead in the Tour de France's flat, fast stage 13 on Friday, won by Robbie McEwen in a sprint.

The win was McEwen's third of this year's Tour. Armstrong and his main rivals finished together in the stage across southern France before the race heads into the Pyrenees today.

Armstrong's lead over second-place Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark stayed at 38 seconds, with French rider Christophe Moreau still third, 2:34 behind the six-time champion.

Italy's Ivan Basso remains 2:40 back, fourth overall. Jan Ullrich of Germany is 4:02 behind, but rose to eighth in the standings after Spain's Alejandro Valverde retired with an injury. Valverde, winner of the first Alpine stage, had been fifth overall.

"Everybody is waiting" for the Pyrenees, said Armstrong, explaining why he and his rivals did not do battle over Friday's 107.8-mile trek from Miramas to Montpellier.

Ullrich was 25th, Armstrong 33rd, Rasmussen was 57th, and Basso was 72nd. They and McEwen all finished with the same time of 3 hours, 43 minutes, 14 seconds.

Today's 137-mile stage from Agde on the Mediterranean coast is followed Sunday by perhaps the hardest stage this year.

Monday is a rest day before the last high mountain stage. Should the Pyrenees not prove decisive, the outcome of the three-week race will likely be decided in a time trial the day before the Tour ends July 24. Armstrong will retire then -- he hopes with a seventh consecutive win.

Hot weather is forecast to continue Saturday. Dehydration weakened Armstrong during the 2003 Tour.

"Everybody's performance suffers in the heat," Armstrong said. "But some riders, of course, handle it better than others."

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