| Lance Armstrong
Gap (France): Lance Armstrong survived his biggest scare since winning his first Tour de France in 1999 when his leading rival, Spaniard Joseba Beloki, crashed in front of him near the end of the 184.5km ninth stage to Gap.
The American’s bid to win a record-equalling fifth Tour was nearly ruined when Beloki, runner-up last year and second in this year’s race, lost control after his tyre blew on the melted tarmac surface.
Armstrong was forced to swerve past the stricken ONCE team leader and into a dusty field before crossing a ditch and rejoining the race.
Beloki, in obvious distress, was helped by teammates before being taken to hospital in an ambulance.
Tour doctors later confirmed that he had broken his right leg near the hip and also sustained wrist and elbow fractures.
“I had never been that scared. Real panic. In a moment like that, it’s only a reflex of survival,” said the Texan.
The American, who survived a near-fatal cancer to win the first of his four Tours in 1999, kept his overall lead after taking the yellow jersey in L’Alpe D’Huez on Sunday.
But Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov, who won the stage in Gap after breaking away on the last of the day’s four climbs, the La Rochette hill, is now hot on his heels.
Vinokourov, winner of the Tour of Switzerland, is now only 21 seconds behind Armstrong going into Tuesday’s 219km 10th stage to Marseille.
Beloki, who said after Sunday’s stage that he would keep attacking Armstrong all the way to Paris, paid dearly for his aggressive tactics.
He tested the Texan on the last two climbs of the day, the St Apollinaire and La Rochette and was leading a furious chase to catch Vinokourov.
When his tyre blew up, there was nothing the 29-year-old Spaniard, who finished on the podium in his three Tours, could do to stay on his bike.
“The road was in a very bad state because of the heat and it was not safe to go down at that pace,” Armstrong said. “His tyre exploded and it was impossible for him to stay on his bike. I had to do a little bit of cyclo-cross in the field but I had the scare of my life,” he added.
The crash was all the more upsetting for Beloki as he had once again looked the main threat to the American.
Vinokourov won his first Tour stage in just over five hours, with a 36-second lead over Italian champion Paolo Bettini and Spaniard Iban Mayo, winner in L’Alpe D’Huez on Sunday. Armstrong sprinted to finish fourth in the same time.