LUZ ARDIDEN, France — Germany's Jan Ullrich, the only man thought to have a chance to dethrone two-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, virtually conceded the race to the Texan after Sunday's 14th stage.
"I'm finished," said the Deutsche Telekom rider, who finished just ahead of Armstrong in the final Pyrenees stage but was unable to make a dent in his 5-minute-plus lead. "I'm looking forward to the rest day [today]. I'm glad we've left the mountains behind. I had no chance this year against Lance."
Ullrich's strong ride Sunday moved him into second place overall, 5 minutes 5 seconds behind Armstrong. The gap is smaller than either of Armstrong's two previous Tour-winning margins--6:02 last year and 7:37 in 1999--but still formidable, given what remains of the race.
"It's a relief," Armstrong said of Sunday's developments. "There are no more epic stages . . . but I'm not thinking about Paris yet."
He may be soon. It now appears highly unlikely that anyone can prevent Armstrong from wearing the yellow jersey for the rest of the race.
The backbreaking high-altitude stages are finished. After the rest day, the course profile will gradually flatten out as the peleton sidewinds its way to the French capital for the traditional Sunday finish on the Champs-Elysees.
Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammates will help him protect his lead in the last few stages, so it would be difficult for Ullrich to make up any significant time there. His only chance to shine might be in Friday's individual time trial, a 37.82-mile go-for-broke stage from Montlucon to St.-Amand-Montrond in central France.
Meanwhile, on Sunday it was time to relinquish the road to the locals. Armstrong's Sherman-like march through the mountains, during which he won three stages, ended when he decided he had left enough scorched earth between himself and the field.
Stage laurels belonged to Roberto Laiseka, a hero in his native Basque area where France and Spain border and a member of the all-Basque Euskaltel team that wanted to give its proud partisans a reason to celebrate.
Laiseka, 32, blew kisses to the ebullient mob that leaned over the barricades, waving red-white-and-green Basque flags, in the final stretch of the 89.59-mile stage from Tarbes to the velvety green summit of the 5,574-foot Luz Ardiden. In 25th place, more than 56 minutes behind Armstrong, he was clearly racing for this day only.
Laiseka finished 54 seconds ahead of Italy's Wladimir Belli and 1:08 in front of Ullrich and Armstrong, who came in practically in tandem. Ullrich, who forged ahead in the final mile, reached over to Armstrong as they finished, and Armstrong acknowledged him by briefly clasping his hand.
The Euskaltel team, founded in 1994, made its Tour debut this year courtesy of a wild-card invitation from race organizers. Although the team has been successful in Spain, "the Tour is still the most important race because of all the international teams here," Laiseka said. "We were on the attack from the first kilometer. Our tactics were perfect."
On a day of pleasantries, the French newspaper Le Journal de Dimanche reported biting comments about Armstrong by Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc. While calling Armstrong "the archetypal professional," LeBlanc said the defending champion is "respected but not loved . . . he isn't warm." LeBlanc also referred to doping rumors Armstrong continues to deny, and called his bodyguards "gorillas."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Tour de France at a Glance
A look at Sunday's 14th stage:
* Stage: An 89.6-mile mountainous stretch between Tarbes and Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees, covering the highest peak of the Tour, the 6,980-foot Col du Tourmalet.
* Winner: Spaniard Roberto Laiseka, in 4 hours, 24 minutes, 30 seconds.
* How others fared: Two-time defending champion Lance Armstrong was fourth, to keep the leader's yellow jersey for a second day. Germany's Jan Ullrich was third and rose to second place in the standings, 5:05 behind Armstrong.
* Next stage: Today is a rest day. The race resumes Tuesday with the longest stage of the Tour, a 144.38-mile stretch from Pau to Lavaur.