Originally created 07/18/04

Armstrong in total control



PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France - Clearing the path to a record sixth Tour de France crown, Lance Armstrong overpowered his rivals in the showcase race's 13th stage on Saturday, moving to cement his place as the most dominant rider of his generation.

Only Italian Ivan Basso managed to stay with the five-time champion on the last of seven climbs in the Pyrenees, a devastating ascent to the Plateau de Beille.

As Armstrong and Basso bobbed off their saddles through excited crowds that lined the route, other riders scattered down the mountain, their hopes of winning seemingly over.

With just the Alps and two time trials left to negotiate next week, only a meltdown by Armstrong or an unforeseen accident appear to stand in the way of victory in Paris on July 25.

Armstrong won the stage ahead of Basso, overtaking him with a final burst of speed. He also won here in 2002. The stage win was Armstrong's 17th in 10 Tours and his first this year. He also won the team time trials with his U.S. Postal squad this year and last.

On Friday in the first Pyrenean stage, the tables were turned: Basso took his first win and Armstrong was second, just in the Italian's wheel on the climb to the La Mongie ski station.

As in previous years, when Armstrong sealed victory in the mountains and then took his prize in Paris, he said he was not ready to declare the three-week race over yet.

"As I always say, the Tour finishes in Paris," the 32-year-old said. "There are still the Alps and many dangerous stages."

German Jan Ullrich, abandoned again on the last climb, as he was Friday, trailed by 2 minutes and 42 seconds.

He came into the Tour seemingly determined to dethrone the Texan who has beaten him three times - but his race exploded in the Pyrenees.

"I have rarely pushed myself so hard. But after seven mountains and more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) under conditions that should really be ideal for me, I must admit: Lance appears to be unbeatable this year," said the German, the 1997 Tour winner.

Ullrich is 6:39 behind the Texan overall. Last year, he lost the Tour to Armstrong by just 61 seconds. Armstrong had rated the German, who also is a five-time runner-up, as his most respected rival.

Tyler Hamilton, another pre-Tour favorite, pulled out with severe back pain Saturday.

French rider Thomas Voeckler clung onto the overall lead but will likely be easy prey for Armstrong ahead.

Basso, at 1:17 behind Armstrong in the overall standings, has emerged as the last main rival to eliminate.

"We take him very seriously," said Armstrong, who added that his team tried to recruit the Italian last year. "He's riding super-strong."

He added: "I knew Basso would be dangerous."