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Culture

Lance Too Strong as Tour Heats up

Write off Lance Armstrong at your leisure. Despite recent unimpressive time trials, the four-time Tour de France winner stormed back on Monday to snatch Stage 15 amid crashes and drama.

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Armstrong's return to form pits him against Jan Ullrich with five stages to go

If the Tour de France 2003 is destined to be won by someone other than Lance Armstrong, no one has told the four-time winner and race legend from Texas. Until Monday, the 31-year-old rider on the U.S. Postal Service team had put in some rather below par performances in this current tour. His unimpressive time trails had prompted some commentators to predict his demise, despite leading the chasing pack by 15 seconds at the start of the 15th stage.

But Armstrong stormed back to show the doubters and the pretenders to his crown that he had lost none of his brilliance or self-confidence by winning the 159.5 kilometer stage by 40 seconds -- despite falling when his bike's brake lever got entangled in a spectator's bag.

Armstrong's first stage win of the race has relaunched his bid for a fifth straight yellow jersey which had looked under serious threat from Germany's Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner, and Team Telekom's Alexander Vinokourov until Monday’s win. But it was a hard-fought victory full of incident and potential disaster for the American.

Spectator's bag causes crash

Lance Armstrong

Ace in the pack.

Armstrong crashed around the six kilometer mark before the summit finish in the Pyrenees after his handlebars got caught up with a spectator's bag. Spanish rider Iban Mayo, who was riding just behind him, was also caught up in the tumble while Ullrich, in third, swerved to avoid the melee.

After completing an incredible comeback to win the stage, Armstrong was loath to blame the incident on the spectators. "It was also my fault for riding too much on the right of the road. But after that I had a big adrenaline rush and just said to myself, 'Lance, if you want to win the Tour de France then it's time to attack'."

And attack he did. After the American remounted, he soon made up good time and caught the group headed by Ullrich, with help from former teammate Tyler Hamilton. Following the unwritten rule in cycling which says that fellow riders should not take advantage of crashes or toilet breaks, Hamilton slowed down the favourites group to allow his fellow American to catch up following his crashing fall.

Gear problem almost ends challenge

But once with the leaders again, Armstrong almost fell off his bike again when his right foot jolted, apparently because of a problem with his gears, and he fell onto the frame of his bike.

"There was something wrong with my gears," added Armstrong, laughing. "I don't know ... I've had a few problems today." However, the shock had a largely positive effect on him and the reigning Tour champion went on the push the leaders once more. As Armstrong swept to victory, the challenge of his closest rivals, Ullrich and Vinokourov, appeared to melt away.

Ullrich and Armstrong to duel to the end

With Vinokourov, the Tour’s surprise package this year, now two minutes 45 seconds off the lead, the Tour appears to be a straight fight between Armstrong and Ullrich. The Bianchi rider is 67 seconds off the lead with just five stages left but the German remains confident.

Jan Ullrich gewinnt 12. Etappe der Tour de France

Jan Ullrich hopes to be wearing a yellow shirt in this pose at the end of the Tour.

"It's still a wide open race," insisted Ullrich, who will hope he can make some time back in Saturday's time trial. His optimism is far from misplaced. Ullrich beat Armstrong by 90 seconds in the first big time trial of the Tour last week.

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