Mercado takes honours in largely uneventful day
Today's stage from Annemasse to Lons-le-Saunier, 166.5km of undulating riding with five official climbs, was won by Juan Miguel Mercado, who rode much of the stage in a 6-man breakaway.
Before the race, the day was full of speculation about Lance Armstrong's plans for next year, with the rider, his team and race officials conceding there was no guarantee that the tour would feature in his 2005 schedule; once the action started, the American was involved in an unlikely break, providing the early interest in today's stage.
At about 35km, tour leader Armstrong followed an attack by Filippo Simeoni, who had left the peloton to try to join the breakaway group of six riders. With none of the leaders posing a threat to the five-time champion, Armstrong's move was apparently motivated by a personal feud between the two riders...
Simeoni testified in the trial of Michele Ferrari, claiming he taught him how to take the banned drug EPO and to conceal its use, and Armstrong, a long-time associate of Ferrari's, has reacted angrily to this testimony by calling Simeoni a liar. Simeoni, in response, has confirmed he intends to sue Armstrong for alleged libel; the personal feud in today's stage appears to be the latest tiff in this saga.
On the course, this move was short-lived, and although the break briefly alarmed the T-Mobile team who came to the front of the peloton, Armstrong and Simeoni were back in the pack within 10km.
The results of the stage had no effect on the standings at the top of the GC, as Armstrong, Basso, Kloden and Ullrich all crossed the line at 11.29 behind the stage winner.
With just two stages left, comprising a time trial and the largely uncompetitive procession into Paris on Sunday, they may as well spray the yellow jersey onto Armstrong in indelible paint. It's impossible to disagree with Ullrich's simple analysis yesterday: "Lance is too strong".