Armstrong gains ground on some rivals

Thursday, July 15, 2004

SAINT-FLOUR, France -- Seven seconds.

That may not seem like much, but in the Tour de France, the advantage Lance Armstrong gained over two rivals Wednesday could be an important step in the Texan's bid for a record sixth straight crown.

At a minimum, Armstrong struck a psychological blow by showing his 32-year-old legs still have enough zip after the longest stage to outshine Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras -- former teammates raring to dethrone him.

But Armstrong's main rival, Jan Ullrich, was able to keep up.

The German, a Tour winner in 1997 and five-time runner-up, stayed with Armstrong in a sprint to the finish of the first mountain stage. They ended up with the same time.

The glory on Bastille Day went to Frenchman Richard Virenque, who took his seventh stage victory of a spotted career with a strong solo ride, and French champion Thomas Voeckler, who retained the overall lead.

Armstrong still trails Voeckler by 9 minutes, 35 seconds. The 25-year-old Frenchman displayed his resilience by riding toward the front of main pack for much of the 147-mile trek from Limoges and by outsprinting Armstrong at the finish.

Voeckler placed fifth, Armstrong sixth and Ullrich 15th -- the last in a group of 14 riders who finished together 5 minutes and 19 seconds behind Virenque's mark of 6 hours and 24 seconds. Other Armstrong rivals Ivan Basso and Iban Mayo also finished in that bunch.

Armstrong's burst of speed on the uphill finish was to ensure that riders with him didn't make a bid to gain time. In doing so, he left Hamilton and Heras trailing in a group seven seconds back.

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