Lance closes in on sixth title

VILLARD-DE-LANS: Lance Armstrong retook the overall lead in the Tour de France yesterday, closing in on a record sixth title with an emphatic sprint finish on the first Alpine stage. 

Armstrong out-sprinted Italian Ivan Basso, his last real challenger after two weeks of punishing racing, and Jan Ullrich, 1997 Tour champion, to take his second stage victory of this Tour and the 18th of his illustrious career. 

“There's something special in winning in a sprint,” said the five-time champion, his competitive fire undimmed at the age of 32. “To win in a sprint for me is much more intense than being alone.” 

Valuable bonus seconds earned by the win extended his overall lead on Basso to 1:25.  

Armstrong said his team's sporting manager, Johan Bruyneel, was yelling through his radio-linked earpiece that he had to beat the Italian. 

“Johan was screaming in my ear that I had to win because of the time bonuses,” he said. “Every second counts.” 

Behind Basso was Ullrich, the powerful German whose challenge fizzled out on Friday and Saturday in the Pyrenees. There, Armstrong demolished his rivals with dominant displays of climbing, all but clearing his path to the podium in Paris next Sunday. 

Armstrong took the overall leader's yellow jersey from Thomas Voeckler, the resilient French champion who finally fell prey to the Texan having bravely and narrowly defended his lead in the Pyrenees. There, Armstrong whittled Voeckler's lead down to 22 seconds – from more than nine minutes before the mountains. 

Voeckler, 25, buckled in the heat and on the climbs of the 180.5km stage from Valreas to Villard-de-Lans yesterday. He dropped to eighth place overall, 9:28 behind Armstrong. 

Armstrong now has 61 yellow jerseys in his Tour career. He also wore yellow for one day after the team time trial on July 7, where his US Postal Squad won for a second straight year, but ceded the lead to Voeckler the next day. 

“It's exciting to take the yellow jersey, even if it's number 61 or however many. It's still a thrill,” said Armstrong. 

As overall leader, Armstrong will get the privilege of starting out last today on a time trial that promises to be a highlight of this Tour. 

For the first time ever, the race against the clock is being held on the brutal ascent to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station, a Mecca of cycling with 21 rhythm-destroying hairpin bends. 

Starting last is the equivalent of pole position, and will allow Armstrong to see how other riders – notably Basso – have fared on the murderous ascent before him. 

But as with other years when he held the race in a stranglehold, Armstrong hates to look forward to victory until the last day. 

“It's not finished. Today wasn't easy,” he said. – AP  

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