BRIANCON, France — Another chance to deny Lance Armstrong his second consecutive Tour de France victory slipped away Saturday as the American held his lead on another long, tough mountain stage.
Armstrong, who battled back from cancer to win last year's race, finished seventh in the 14th stage, a 155-mile marathon from Draguignan to Briancon.
The stage was won by Santiago Botero of Colombia. But most important for Armstrong is that he never let Germany's Jan Ullrich, his only realistic challenger, get ahead of him. Armstrong remained 4 minutes 55 seconds ahead.
"I am very, very tired," Armstrong said. "It was a long, tough day. There will be riders that take nine hours to finish. That's a long time to be on a bike."
The 28-year-old Texan knows that only two mountain stages, where the Tour is won and lost, remain. So time is running out for any other rider to take away his yellow leader's jersey.
The riders will tackle a 107-mile stage today from Briancon to Courchevel, and, after a rest day, there is an ascent from Courchevel to Morzine Tuesday.
"Tomorrow is more difficult than Morzine. Especially after a rest day on Monday. It will be difficult because today was long and hard, but it will be nice to ride 75 kilometers less tomorrow," Armstrong said.
Armstrong rode another smart tactical race on the trek to Briancon.
A group of eight riders broke from the pack at about the halfway mark, but Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates tracked top riders like Ullrich, Marco Pantani of Italy and Richard Virenque of France.
Ullrich was ninth, while Pantani and Virenque finished just a few seconds ahead of Armstrong.
"The racing wasn't very aggressive in the beginning, because [Friday] wasn't an easy stage," Armstrong said. "People took it easy for three or four hours and maybe the stage was too long."
Indeed, a delighted Botero crossed the line after an energy-sapping ride of 7 hours 56 minutes 13 seconds, having powered away from the leading pack with 19 miles to go.
The Kelme rider led at the final Col D'Izoard summit by 2:01 and was able to enjoy his final ride over the line with a 2:30 advantage.
It was the Kelme team's second win of the Tour, after Javier Otxoa's success in the 10th leg, and the biggest in Botero's four-year professional career.
A Colombian rider hasn't won a stage of the Tour since Chepe Gonzalez in 1996.
While Botero was taking the initiative at the front, there was a great battle between bigger names farther down the slope.
Pantani was the first to attack Armstrong, but the defending champion caught and overtook the Italian before a late burst from Virenque had the home crowd cheering.
The Col D'Izoard, which was packed with more than 200,000 fans, peaks at 7,788 feet. For an aperitif, riders had to negotiate two hard climbs at Col d'Allos and Col de Vars. The skies were clear but a blustery wind made riding tricky.
The climb up Col D'Izoard, which has an average gradient of more than 7.2%, began in the picturesque village of Arvieux in the 135th mile.
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Tour de France at a Glance
Saturday's 14th stage of the 87th Tour de France:
* STAGE: A mountainous 155-mile route from Draguignan to Briancon.
* WINNER: Santiago Botero of Colombia in 7 hours 56 minutes 13 seconds.
* HOW OTHERS FARED: Defending champion Lance Armstrong, who retained his lead of 4:55, finished seventh, 2:51 behind Botero. Jan Ullrich of Germany was ninth with the same time.
* QUOTE OF THE DAY: Armstrong--"It was a long, tough day. There will be riders that take nine hours to finish. That's a long time to be on a bike."
* NEXT STAGE: Today's 107-mile course from Briancon to Courchevel.