L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France (AP) - Riding through a frenzied sea of fans, Lance Armstrong pulverized rivals and extended his lead in the Tour de France by
winning a historic time trial Wednesday high in the French Alps.
Armstrong stormed up the 15.5-kilometer (9.6-mile) climb through 21 hairpin turns to the L'Alpe d'Huez ski station in 39 minutes, 41 seconds - the
only rider under 40 minutes.
"I wanted it bad because of the history around this mountain and the importance to the race,"
the five-time Tour champion said. "All in all,
it was a very important day."
At this point, only a disaster would appear to stand in the way of his record sixth straight Tour title when the three-week cycling marathon ends in
Paris on Sunday. Armstrong was 61 seconds faster than second-place Jan Ullrich and actually passed his closest challenger, Ivan Basso, even though the
Italian started two minutes ahead of the Texan.
"Lance is strong in the mountains,"
acknowledged Basso, who was eighth Wednesday, 2:23 behind. He is still second overall but now trails
Armstrong by 3:48. Armstrong said he was surprised Basso lost so much time.
"It's still a tight race. I knew I had to be good,"
he said. "Lots of emotion, lots of adrenaline,"
he added, summing up his ride.
"This mountain is special."
It was Armstrong's second consecutive stage victory, the third during this Tour and the 19th of his career. He has also won team time trials with his
U.S. Postal Service squad this year and last. Behind Basso, Andreas Kloden is third overall, 5:03 back. He placed third on Wednesday, 1:41 adrift of
Armstrong. Ullrich - the 1997 champion and five-time runner-up - climbed to fourth overall, 7:55 behind Armstrong.
Last year, Armstrong finished just 61 seconds ahead of Ullrich - by far the Texan's narrowest winning margin since he came back from cancer to win his
first Tour in 1999. No one came close to Armstrong's performance Wednesday. Wearing black shoes, black socks and his coveted yellow jersey as overall
leader, which he reclaimed Tuesday by winning the first stage in the Alps, the 32-year-old was dominant. Despite the steep climb, he ascended at an
average speed of 23.43 kilometers an hour (14.52 mph).
As overall leader, the Texan had the advantage of being the last of the 157 cyclists to start the individual race against the clock. That enabled
Armstrong to measure himself against his opponents - notably Basso - as he climbed.
"I didn't expect to get gain so much time on Ivan Basso. When I set out, I didn't know how fast I was going, how my form was. But a spectator said,
'A minute ahead.' I replied, 'No, no, that's not possible'."
Mouth open, silver chain dangling out of his unzipped jersey, Armstrong caught Basso and passed him just after riding over a red-white-and-blue Texas
state flag drawn on the black pavement. Basso glanced left at Armstrong, who just looked straight ahead. At the bottom of the climb, crowds completely
covered the road, parting only at the very last second as riders hurtled toward them. Some fans ran alongside the bicycles, waving flags that came
close to catching handlebars or wheels. Others were slow to move aside, forcing riders to swerve.
It was the first time that Tour organizers organized a time trial on the legendary climb. Armstrong said it "wasn't a good idea" and complained about
German fans, saying they were "horrible."
"But that's life,"
Some of the hundreds of thousands of people camped out for days to get the best spots. Police motorcyclists rode in front of racers, sirens blaring,
parting the crowds to some extent. Fans honked horns, blew trumpets, rang cowbells and urged riders on with applause and yells in a cacophony of
languages. Every moment still seemed to be an accident waiting to happen.
"I don't think it's safe,"
It was the 24th time since Italian Fausto Coppi first won a stage here in 1952 that the Tour had come to L'Alpe d'Huez. But until now, the mountain
was the tiring end of Alpine stages that had already taken riders over other climbs. The ascent has an average gradient of 7.9 percent, rising to 11.5
percent in its steepest stretches. It is classed as "hors categorie," or unrated - the hardest on the cycling scale of difficulty.
The route started with a flat section in the valley at Bourg-d'Oisans and finished at an altitude of 1,850 meters (6,105 feet), for a vertical ascent
of 1,130 meters (3,729 feet).
Some riders did not go all out, saving their energies for Thursday and one of the toughest stages this year - 204.5 mountainous kilometers (126.8
miles) from Bourg-d'Oisans to Le Grand-Bornand. The trek includes five climbs, one of them an unrated ascent to Col de la Madeleine, at an altitude of
2,000 meters (6,600 feet).