LUZ-ARDIDEN, France, AFP
Lance Armstrong tightened his grip on the Tour de France here Sunday, extending his lead in the overall standings with a third-place finish in the 14th stage won by Basque rider Roberto Laiseka. Defending champion Armstrong crossed third alongside German arch-rival Jan Ullrich, widening the gap between himself and the rest of the field by more than a minute on the final day of climbing in the Pyrenees. Armstrong started the day 3min 54sec clear of second-placed rider Andrei Kivilev, but stretched the margin to 5:05 after Sunday’s stage. Ullrich is now second overall, leapfrogging over Kivilev who dropped down to third. The 32-year-old Laiseka of newcomers Euskaltel has spent his entire professional career with the Basque team and won his first Tour stage in 4hr 24min 30sec. The victory delighted thousands of orange clad Basques lined along the entire climb. Italian Wladimir Belli of the Fassa Bartolo team came second at 54sec after a unishing 144.5km stage from Tarbes to the 1715m no category summit finish here. U.S. Postal star Armstrong and Telekom rider Ullrich had engaged in another duel on the day’s final ascent but came home together, 1min 08sec adrift of Laiseka. Any ideas about bad blood between the two was momentarily dispelled when Armstrong offered a friendly hand to Ullrich as they crossed the line together. Armstrong retains the yellow jersey he won on Saturday and Telekom team leader Ullrich has a 5:05 deifcit on the Texan prior to Monday’s rest day – after which the opportunities could prove few and far between. Before then the 29-year-old US Postal team leader would not grudge a local victory for Laiseka, who raised his arms in the air in delight and blessed himself after the 16.9km ascent of the Luz-Ardiden. The third serious climb of the day, it last featured on the Tour in 1994 when France’s five-times King of the Mountains Richard Virenque took the stage. But Sunday was Euskaltel’s day. “It’s only the third victory in my career and by far its the most important,” said Laiseka after the stage. “It’s even more special since all the supporters of our team made the effort to come up here. “It is a major victory for our team,” added Laiseka, who has the pleasure of scoring his revamped team’s first ever victory on the Tour. On the final ascent Laiseka led Belli by a mere 30secs, with Armstrong, his Spanish climbing lieutenant Roberto Heras and Ullrich at 100 adrift of the leader. The little Basque rider, whose last significant result was his sixth place overall in the Vuelta (Tour of Spain) last year, looked far from tiring however as he was given plenty of vocal and moral support from the roadside locals. Not far from the summit Ullrich, who in the past four days has suffered at the hands of Armstrong on the serious climbs, launched an attack but his Texan tormentor simply followed suit. Sitting on Ullrich’s wheel, Armstrong seemed little interested in chasing down Belli, or an unprecedented fourth mountain stage victory. While Armstrong and Ullrich showed their friendly tendencies, the race is still on to see who will triumph in Paris next Sunday.