Armstrong wins 12th stage of Tour de France, widens overall lead

Friday, July 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (AP) _ Lance Armstrong made a big move in his bid for a fourth straight Tour de France title by winning Friday's 12th stage to more than double his overall lead.

Armstrong punched the air with both fists as he crossed the finish line after the covering the grueling 123.7 miles from Lannemezan to the Plateau de Beille in 6 hours, 29 seconds.

In the final 100 yards, he had enough of a margin that he took the time to zip up his yellow jersey, which had been open to below his chest.

Armstrong had a sort of home-terrain advantage: He lives part of the year near Gerona in northern Spain, not far away.

``I know this climb very well,'' the Texan said after almost sprinting to the mountaintop finish in the Pyrenees. ``It's the nearest mountain pass to my home.''

His second straight victory in a climbing stage extended Armstrong's lead in the overall standings to 2:28 over Joseba Beloki of Spain.

Beloki finished third Friday, 1 minute, 4 seconds off the pace _ the same time as runner-up Roberto Heras, a member of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team.

But Armstrong was careful not to sound complacent.

``We still have lots of difficult climbs ahead,'' he said. ``We can still have problems.''

The 14th stage takes riders to Mont Ventoux, probably the hardest climb in France, and there are three more mountain stages in the Alps.

The ease with which Armstrong won Friday's stage, though, suggests his challengers could find it almost impossible to catch up.

Armstrong surged into the lead about 4 1/2 miles before the end of the tough climb to the Plateau de Beille. Within a few minutes, he was roughly 700 yards ahead of Heras and Beloki, who couldn't match the Texan's pace.

Thanks mostly to his dominance in the mountains, Armstrong won four stages in the 2001 Tour, when he finished more than 6 1/2 minutes ahead of runner-up Jan Ullrich.

This year's 20-stage race ends July 28 in Paris.

Armstrong is trying to become the fifth cyclist to win the Tour de France four times.