Armstrong extends lead in mountain time trial

Thursday, July 22, 2004

L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- Mouth open, silver chain dangling out of his unzipped yellow jersey, Lance Armstrong pedaled relentlessly through a sea of frenzied fans crowding his path in the Alps.

On one of cycling's most famous peaks, Armstrong shut out the cheers and taunts Wednesday to focus on finishing off his chief rival and locking up a record sixth straight Tour de France title.

The Texan won the first time trial to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station, surging up the legendary 9.6-mile climb to establish beyond any doubt that he is unmatched on the mountains.

He finished his second consecutive stage victory in 39 minutes, 41 seconds, his legs whirring through 21 hairpin bends lined with hundreds of thousands of spectators honking horns, ringing cowbells and yelling in a cacophony of languages.

The performance was so dominant that Armstrong overtook his last true challenger for the overall title, Ivan Basso, even though the Italian started two minutes earlier.

With four days left in the three-week cycling marathon, only disaster could prevent Armstrong from adding to his string of five consecutive titles.

"I'm real careful about counting to the number six," Armstrong said. "I'll do that on the final lap on the Champs-Elysees."

Only three riders, including Armstrong's teammate Jose Azevedo, finished within two minutes of the American. The others were 1997 champion and five-time overall runner-up Jan Ullrich, 61 seconds back in second place, and his teammate Andreas Kloden, 1:41 behind in third.

Basso was eighth, 2:33 off Armstrong's pace. While still closest to Armstrong, his total deficit grew from 1:25 to 3:48.

"I hoped to lose less time," Basso said, "but Lance was superior."

Armstrong caught Basso and passed him just after riding over a red-white-and-blue Texas state flag drawn on the black pavement. Basso glanced left at Armstrong, who just looked straight ahead.

"That is incredibly motivating for a rider when you see you're catching somebody," Armstrong said. "I have a ton of respect for Ivan. I think he's the biggest threat in the race. I think he's the brightest future for the Tour."

Ullrich climbed from fifth to fourth overall, but his deficit grew to 7:55. Kloden, lags by 5:03.

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