<
>

Armstrong remains second to Voeckler

NIMES, France -- Lance Armstrong is looking over his
shoulder. But this time it's to see how far back his main rivals
are, not how close.

Although Frenchman Thomas Voeckler still leads the Tour de
France by 22 seconds, other considered contenders to Armstrong have
drifted away.

Armstrong and other top riders caught their breath Sunday, when
Spaniard Aitor Gonzalez won the flat 14th stage from Carcassonne to
Nimes.

The stage victories was Gonzalez's first in three Tours. The
main pack was way back when the Spaniard won the 119.6-mile swing
through southern France.

Armstrong, 39th, rolled in 14 minutes, 12 seconds later
alongside Voeckler.

To the likes of Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton and Iban Mayo,
watching Armstrong surging closer to a record-breaking sixth
straight victory must have been soul destroying these last 15 days.

Sharp in the prologue, strong in the team time trial, dominant
in the Pyrenees mountains -- the Texan has simply shown no weakness.
Only mishap or a lapse will likely deprive him of glory in Paris on
July 25.

What a difference a year makes.

In 2003, Armstrong of Austin, Texas, suffered terribly. He fell
off his bike twice, and also had technical problems with it.
Blighted by dehydration, a confidence crisis and physical worries,
Armstrong used every ounce of fighting spirit to beat German
Ullrich by 61 seconds.

"Last year I had a lot of problems with my private life," said
Armstrong, who divorced from his wife shortly after the 2003 race.
"This year, I am, like the team, more relaxed."

He had never been pushed so close.

But this time the powerful Ullrich has been a major flop and
sits 6:39 adrift of Armstrong with just six stages remaining. After
Monday's rest day, cyclists head to the Alps.

The race winner in 1997, Ullrich was earmarked as Armstrong's
biggest rival. He looked confident and muscular after shedding
weight.

Beginning badly in the opening day prologue stage, he conceded
15 seconds to Armstrong. On July 7, as the rain thundered down in
Arras, he took another blow as the smooth-running U.S. Postal team
helped extend Armstrong's lead over him to 55 by clinching the team
time trial.

Not to worry, thought Ullrich's T-Mobile team: our leader will
catch up in the Pyrenees.

After several flat stages, and a hilly route through the Massif
Central, the gap remained heading into the Pyrenees on July 16.

Ullrich and Mayo -- hampered by a spill early in the race -- were
expected to attack. They tried and failed.

Only Italian Ivan Basso managed to match Armstrong's ferocious
pace on stages 12 and 13.

Armstrong eased up to allow Basso his first career stage victory
in Friday's 122.5-mile trek from Castelsarrasin to La Mongie.

In Saturday's 127.4-mile slog from Lannemezan to Plateau de
Beille, Basso and Armstrong again broke clear. In a sprint to the
line, Armstrong took his 17th career stage win to sneak closer
behind Voeckler.

Hamilton, his former Postal teammate, abandoned the Tour for the
first time -- severe back pains too much for even this tough
fighter.

Mayo wilted in the sun, while Ullrich grimaced -- unable to churn
those big gears anymore.

Basso, the Team CSC leader, now emerges as the No. 1 contender.

Asked if Ullrich can still threaten, Armstrong said he'd never
write off his rival. But Postal's team manager Johan Bruyneel is
emphatic the German's bid is over.

"Six minutes down already so that is a lot," Bruyneel said.
"Other rivals are more dangerous. Basso obviously, who is the only
rider who can stay with Lance."

Armstrong called Basso "a threat, absolutely."

"He'll ride good in the Alps and a tough final time trial."

While Armstrong enjoys Monday's rest day with a gentle cruise
with teammates, others will scratch their heads wondering how, when
and if they will come back.

"We come in with the perception of who's dangerous and that
changes daily," Armstrong said. "We just take their name off the
list and add somebody else. All along I knew Basso would be
dangerous."