Mountains loom as Tour de France gets down to business

Posted: Wednesday, July 14, 2004

GUERET, France Move over sprinters, time for climbers to shine.

The charge for the Tour de France title intensifies Wednesday with the first mountain stage a chance for five-time champion Lance Armstrong and other contenders to test their legs before mightier battles in the Pyrenees and Alps.

''It will be hard, especially if the race starts aggressively like it did today,'' Armstrong said after Tuesday's ninth stage.

''A lot of people will be going home if it starts like that.''

Armstrong remained in sixth place overall, finishing 44th Tuesday behind stage winner Robbie McEwen of Australia. The 32-year-old Texan is 9 minutes, 35 seconds behind leader Thomas Voeckler of France.

Wednesday's 147-mile trek through the Massif Central of central France is the longest of this Tour and has nine climbs, including the most difficult so far 3 1/2-mile ascent to 5,243 feet, which gets steeper as it goes up.

Armstrong is in the dark about the stage, having not checked it out like some of his rivals before the Tour started.

''It's going to be tough ... up and down all day,'' Armstrong said. ''Unfortunately, it's a stage we haven't seen. It's a hard day ahead.''

He acknowledged that his teammates are ''a little anxious'' but insisted ''they will be ready.''

''The team is great and healthy,'' he added. ''Everyone's recovered from their small crashes.''

Sprinters who have dominated the mostly flat early stages will struggle. Such speedsters include McEwen. Climbers and all-arounders like Armstrong will move to the fore possibly offering an early look at how strong the main contenders are.

''The Tour starts now,'' American Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate and rival of Armstrong's, on Monday's rest day. ''The upcoming stages will really show who is here to win.''

Even with one bad leg, McEwen was still the quickest rider of the first half of the three-week Tour.

Head down, the Australian put on a burst of speed to win Tuesday's ninth stage, racing along the barriers and pushing his wheel over the line just ahead of Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd.

Armstrong, who has been saving his strength for the tough and likely decisive last week, finished comfortably in the main pack. Jan Ullrich, his main rival, was 25th. Both finished in the same time as McEwen's 3 hours, 32 minutes, 55 seconds.

Armstrong's other main objective has been to avoid crashes like the one that took down Spain's Mikel Pradera, who plowed into a road sign and cartwheeled into the path of another rider. Both went on to finish.

''We just sat on the wheel, took it easy,'' said Armstrong. The ride ''was fine, didn't really surprise me at all.''

The hilly 99 1/2-mile stage, the shortest this year except for time trial courses, started in Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat in central France, the hometown of retired Tour great Raymond Poulidor. He is loved by fans even though he never won the showcase race finishing either second or third a record eight times between 1962 and 1976.

McEwen became the first rider to win two stages at this Tour. But when he set out Tuesday, he wasn't even sure he'd make it to the finish. Banged up in a mass crash on Friday, he rode with a sore back and knee and said he started the day thinking, ''I just hope I survive.''

''It's a beautiful victory,'' the 32-year-old McEwen said. ''I gave all of my energy to that sprint.''

Spain's Inigo Landaluze and Italian rider Filippo Simeoni had the win snatched away. They pedaled way out in front of the main pack for much of the race, but were gradually reeled in and overtaken by McEwen, Hushovd and other sprinters in the mass dash to the line.

Voeckler retained the overall lead, meaning he will wear the leader's yellow jersey on Bastille Day, the national holiday on Wednesday. Armstrong is 55 seconds ahead of Ullrich.

Armstrong thinks Voeckler could hold the lead at least into the Pyrenees, which start Friday. But the French champion isn't so sure.

On Wednesday, ''if the favorites decide to fight right from the start ... it could get difficult for me,'' Voeckler said.

McEwen said his knee hurt so much he had to stop six times during a training ride on Monday's rest day. But he has plenty of determination.

He also won a sprint finish in stage two to Namur in Belgium, and took the green jersey as best sprinter at the 2002 Tour. He now has five stage victories in seven Tours. He currently holds the green jersey and hopes to win it at the finish in Paris on July 25.

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