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Armstrong's Lead Almost Evaporates

Ullrich pulls to within 15 seconds of the four-time champion, who is trying to recover from dehydration.

July 20, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

SAINT-GIRONS, France — There were clouds in the sky over the Pyrenees on Saturday night.

When Lance Armstrong arrived at the Hotel Eychenne here with his U.S. Postal Service teammates looking frail and a little shaky, he pointed toward the clouds and smiled.

It may rain in the mountains today. If it pours, if there is thunder and lightning and hail and wind, that would be fine too.

For Armstrong still carried in his luggage the yellow jersey that belongs to the leader of the Tour de France. In two days, the defending four-time champion had lost all but 15 seconds of his lead and nearly 7% of his body weight through dehydration.

He hasn't lost his will, though. He's convinced that as he drinks and drinks and drinks, he will get his legs back. If his legs come back, the next two lung-sapping days in these starkly beautiful mountains will still give Armstrong the advantage he needs over German Jan Ullrich.

"This was," Armstrong said, "a very difficult effort."

Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's trainer for nearly a decade, said it was much more than a difficult effort.

"I was worried about Lance today," Carmichael said Saturday night. "He lost almost 10 pounds in fluids during Friday's time trial. You can't recover from that in 24 hours."

Carmichael said that since Armstrong, the 31-year-old from Austin, Texas, who is trying to become only the second man to win five straight Tours, has come back from his battle with cancer, "and this is totally anecdotal, but I think Lance has had much more trouble with the heat. Before the cancer, heat didn't bother him. After cancer, it has."

And this Tour is hot, the hottest anyone seems to remember.

Normally, Carmichael said, Armstrong weighs about 160 pounds. After Friday's time trial in temperatures that hit 104, Armstrong was down to about 150.

"I didn't expect to have super legs," Armstrong said Saturday. "Friday was too hard. To recuperate -- it's not possible in 24 hours. At the start, all I was thinking was, 'Oh, oh. It's going to be a bad day.' But I'm getting better."

Armstrong finished Saturday's 13th stage in fourth place. Carlos Sastre of Spain and the Danish CSC team was the winner. More importantly, though, Armstrong finished the 122.5-mile stage from Toulouse to Ax-3 Domaines seven seconds behind Ullrich.

Those seven seconds, added to a 12-second bonus Ullrich received for finishing second in the stage, cut what had been a 34-second Armstrong lead to 15.

Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion, was triumphant Saturday, telling French television that "I'm going to try and take the yellow jersey [today]. I'll see how I feel and if all goes well, I'll do the maximum."

Today's 119-mile stage, which begins here and ends in Loudenvielle-Le Louron, has six climbs -- four of 4,400 feet or more.

And Saturday it seemed as if Armstrong had been pushed to his limit, nearly left behind on the final climb during another blistering hot day, by the two men who have most consistently attacked him. Alexandre Vinokourov, the Kazakh who won a stage in the Alps last weekend, made the final big move.

In only a few moments, though, Ullrich was past Vinokourov and suddenly there was no sight of Armstrong and the yellow jersey.

Most of the day Armstrong and Ullrich had ridden in the same pack.

They didn't look at each other. But they felt each other.

They didn't see each other.

But they smelled each other, heard the other's breathing. For more than 100 miles, their bike wheels almost touched, their sweat mingled in the still, stifling air.

Until Vinokourov took off and Ullrich followed, pumping his legs smoothly but ferociously. And it was natural to look for the yellow jersey at Ullrich's back.

But Armstrong wasn't there. He was out of the picture, far enough behind that when Ullrich took a quick peek, there was no man wearing the yellow jersey in his sight.

Then that man was back.

Armstrong rode desperately for the last two miles. "I didn't know if he'd make it back," Carmichael said. "If Ullrich's attack made a statement, so did Lance's recovery. He still has the yellow jersey. And I know this. If you asked Jan Ullrich right now, he'd rather have the 15-second lead and the yellow. With the lead, you're still in command."

For two days in a row Ullrich, a 29-year-old from Rostock in the former East Germany, who had missed 14 months of racing because of knee surgery and a positive test for the recreational drug Ecstasy, has looked stronger and more durable than Armstrong.

Yet according to Carmichael, in that push to the finish line, Armstrong sent a stern message -- more fluids, more recovery, more strength, more attacking are in Armstrong's future.

"If I were to predict," Carmichael said, "I'd say that Lance will be able to attack Monday. Things will stay close Sunday. Monday, I think you'll see Lance build a lead.

"Look, Jan is riding great. All these predictions that Lance was going to blow everybody away, I never bought that. Lance didn't buy that. It's a competition. It's going to be one until we get to Paris."

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