Armstrong pulls away from field

Saturday, July 20, 2002

PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France -- Lance Armstrong was so far ahead and so relaxed after a grueling final climb Friday that he even had time to zip up the bright yellow jersey worn by the leader of the Tour de France.

A fourth straight title now seems almost as easy to secure.

Continuing the amazing run of mountain wins he began when he returned from cancer to take his first title in 1999, Armstrong sprinted ahead of his rivals in the 12th stage and more than doubled his overall race lead.

But the Texan wasn't claiming victory yet.

"I don't celebrate a victory before the final lap on the Champs-Elysees," he said. "One bad day, and you can lose everything."

Four more mountain stages, two of them exceptionally difficult, still await riders.

Yet it was hard to see how anything, barring illness or injury, could prevent Armstrong from keeping the yellow jersey all the way to the July 28 finish in Paris.

Opening a big lead

His rivals are far behind. Spain's Joseba Beloki, Armstrong's biggest challenger, trailed by nearly 2 1/2 minutes in the race standings after Friday's stage in the Pyrenees. He was unlikely to improve his performance enough to stop Armstrong.

As he pedaled in the last climb to the Plateau de Beille, the U.S. Postal Service rider reached down to zip up his yellow jersey, which had been open to below the chest for much of the hot, sunny stage.

"I know this climb very well. It's the nearest mountain pass to my home," said Armstrong, who spends much of the year in Gerona, Spain. He clocked 6 hours and 29 seconds in the 123.69-mile stretch that began in Lannemezan.

Armstrong has held the yellow jersey since Thursday, when he won the Tour's opening mountain leg.

That victory ended speculation, raised by his second-place showing in Monday's time trial, that Armstrong was weaker this year. Friday's win confirmed that he's likely to take a fourth title.

The record is five. Four riders -- Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault of France, Eddy Merckx of Belgium, and Spain's Miguel Indurain -- have taken the title five times.

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