Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) out-sprinted Lance Armstrong to the finish line at the end of the Tour's grueling first Alpine stage Tuesday, but it was Armstrong and team Discovery Channel's furious tempo over the day's two mountains that withered the field and returned the reigning champ to the overall lead.
Lance Armstrong and Alejandro Valverde
Lance Armstrong and Alejandro Valverde race for the finish line in Tuesday's Stage 10.
"I think it's safe to say the team had their climbing legs. For a team that was basically written off a few days ago, they came back strong. They inspired me," Armstrong told the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) after the race.
Midway through the second climb and at the front of the peloton, Armstrong and teammate Yaroslav Popovych, who had regrouped from a downhill crash near the 70-mile point, launched an attack that whittled the lead group to just seven riders.
The group then thinned to just four riders in the final miles, with Armstrong and Valverde breaking into a two-man sprint with half a mile to go.
With the second-place finish, Armstrong now has a 2:40 lead over third-placed Ivan Basso, 2:42 over Christophe Moreau, and 3:16 on Valverde. His closest rival at this stage is the current king of the mountains, Mickael Rasmussen of Rabobank, who kept with Armstrong through the climbs and is 38 seconds back in the overall standings.
Rasmussen finished 14th last year in his first Tour, and his showing so far this year is coming as a surprise even to him.
"It's beyond all expectations. I came here with hopes for a jersey and a stage win and now I can maybe concentrate on the general classification," Rasmussen told OLN.
Unable to keep pace, other big names dropped in the standings today.
T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich slipped to 11th place, 4:02 behind Armstrong, Phonak's captain, Floyd Landis, hit a wall on the final climb with seven miles to go and fell to 4:16 behind Armstrong. T-Mobile's Alexandre Vinokourov, who Armstrong has ranked among his chief rivals, cracked with eight miles to go and lost over three minutes. He now trails Armstrong by 6:32, five seconds ahead of Team CSC's struggling Bobby Julich.
Jens Voigt, coming into the day sporting the yellow jersey, hit the wall up the second climb and plummeted to 107th place, over 31 minutes behind to Armstrong.
As if today's punishment wasn't enough, tomorrow the Tour swings toward Briancon for a second full day in the Alps featuring the highest climb of the Tour, the 8,678-foot Col du Galibier.
Still, Armstrong refused to discount his competition.
"There is a lot of racing still to go," he told OLN.