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Mont Ventoux
Photo ©: Sirotti

91st Tour de France - July 3-25, 2004

Stage 12 - Friday July 16: Castelsarrasin - La Mongie, 197.5 km

Then and now: Advantage Armstrong

Today's stage finishing at La Mongie is likely to bear as much significance as it did when the race finished at this ski station on the Col du Tourmalet two years ago. Anthony Tan compares then and now on the road to La Mongie.

Lance Armstrong soloes across the line to win Stage 11 of the Tour
Photo ©: Sirotti
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July 18, 2002: At the start of Stage 11 in Pau, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano was the maillot jaune by a slender margin of 26 seconds. The Spaniard had taken the race lead exactly one week ago after the Stage 4 team time trial, and three days before the start of the stage, Gonzalez de Galdeano had admirably defended his lead in a 52 kilometre race of truth, conceding just nine seconds to defending champion Lance Armstrong.

Despite the difficulty of the 158 kilometres that lay ahead, attacks went straight from the gun, and by the first Cat. 4 climb of the day at km 35, a group of nine riders broke free from the peloton. However, by the time these nine were on the lower slopes of the hors categorie Col d'Aubisque less than 20 kilometres later, CSC-Tiscali's Laurent Jalabert was the only man out in front.

The inexorable pace of the USPS-led peloton did little to deter the affable but audacious Jaja. His lead was two minutes flat at the top of the Aubisque (km 66.5), and as he made his way across the Vallee d'Arens and Vallee de Campan, towards the final climb of the Col du Tourmalet, he extended his advantage to a maximum 3'55. Oblivious to the war of attrition that was occurring behind him, the Jaja's steady tempo riding appeared enough to earn him a stage, his buffer still 1'40 with five kilometres remaining.

Bernard Thevenet triumphed in La Mongie at the 1970 Tour
Photo ©: Sirotti
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Had it not been for the infernal pace set by Armstrong's mountain-men Chechu Rubiera and Roberto Heras that left Frigo, Menchov, Moreau, Botero, Sevilla and eventually maillot jaune Gonzalez de Galdeano by the wayside, it may well have been Jaja's day. But with three to go, as the CSC-Tiscali rider looked over his shoulder, a very select trio containing Heras, Armstrong and Beloki caught and passed the Frenchman whose legs were now dying a thousand deaths.

Maniacal Basque crowds waving their Ikkurina flags urged Beloki to attack, but the ONCE-Eroski man was already in the red, and could only cling to Armstrong's wheel. With 200 metres remaining, Big Tex launched his stage-winning sprint to take his second stage of the Tour and his fifth for the season, and in doing so, regained the maillot jaune he won at the prologue in Luxembourg.

Said Armstrong at the stage finish: "I thought there might be more attacks on the Aubisque, but that didn't happen. We thought about winning the stage and taking the (yellow) jersey, but there was never a time a time when we said, 'lets go'. But the race is way too open to say it's won. If you have a bad day, you can still lose five minutes in the mountains."

As it so happened, the American only became stronger and more confident, and by the finish in Paris, he had a massive 7'17 lead over Beloki with third-placed overall, Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas, another minute in arrears.

Like the '02 Tour, today's journey to La Mongie marks the first of the Pyrénéean stages and enters the Pyrénées via the anti-clockwise route, considered the harder of the two directions. And like the '02 Tour, the stage should provide the first serious reordering on the overall classification.

It's likely that defending champion Armstrong will once again ride the path of least resistance, following his team-mates' wheels right until the final kilometres. However, if the penultimate climb of the Col d'Aspin becomes the launching pad for a serious attack, it could well be a different story by the day's end.

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