In control: Armstrong maintains overall lead
With 12 days down and 11 to go, his seventh Tour victory is in sight.
BRIANCON, France (AP) -- Lance Armstrong finds himself in a familiar position midway through this Tour de France. He's firmly in the lead, riding well -- and savoring every minute of the race that will be the last of his storied career.
"This is my final Tour, so every day I get on the bike it is a countdown -- 12 days to go, 11 days to go, 10 days to go," the six-time champion said Wednesday after preserving his overall lead in the hardest Alpine stage.
"It is special. It is still fun. I am going to miss it," the 33-year-old added. "But at the same time I am ready to move on."
With 12 days done and 11 left to go, Armstrong is aiming to wear his prized race leader's yellow jersey all the way to Paris on July 24 and retire with his seventh consecutive win.
But his rivals aren't giving up quite yet. Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov showed he still has some fight left by riding solo Wednesday over the Tour's highest ascent and going on to win the 11th stage in the Alpine town of Briancon. Armstrong finished sixth.
"If you don't try, you will never win the Tour," Vinokourov said. "You have to take risks."
Vinokourov, third in 2003, was seen as one of Armstrong's main challengers when the three-week race started on July 2. But that changed in the first Alpine stage on Tuesday, when Armstrong surged away to retake the overall lead.
Vinokourov began the day 6 minutes and 32 seconds behind the American. That deficit meant Armstrong was not overly concerned when Vinokourov rode off into the distance Wednesday, his sky-blue Kazakh national champion's jersey standing out in the rugged, grey mountains.
"We can't chase down everybody that is at five, six, seven minutes," Armstrong said. "We have to prioritize and he was not on our list of priorities, so we left him out there."
Vinokourov took the lead on the famed Col du Galibier, the last of three ascents on the 107.5-mile trek from the ski resort of Courchevel. The Galibier is the highest climb this year at 8,677 feet.
Santiago Botero was second over the narrow, crowd-lined pass, 40 seconds behind Vinokourov. But the Colombian caught Vinokourov on the descent toward Briancon, and they raced to the finish, where Vinokourov beat Botero in a sprint.
The win was Vinokourov's second in five Tours. His first was in 2003.
Armstrong, flanked by Discovery Channel teammates, scaled the Galibier more than two minutes behind Vinokourov in a group of about 20 riders. They reeled in some of the deficit with a speedy descent, finishing 1:15 behind Vinokourov.
"Our objective today was to stay together," he said. "We wanted to be as conservative and relaxed as possible and I think we did it."
Vinokourov earned a time bonus for winning and cut his deficit to Armstrong to 4:47, climbing from 16th to 12th overall.
Armstrong's lead over second-place Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark stayed at 38 seconds. French rider Christophe Moreau rose to third overall, 2:34 behind the six-time champion.
Rasmussen is the runaway leader of the Tour's mountain-climbing competition, where points are awarded on climbs, conferring a polka-dot jersey to the winner. He was not touted as a rival to Armstrong going into the Tour, but is now warranting the champion's attention.
"He is riding strong, climbing very well," Armstrong said. "He is now a threat in the race."
Armstrong's advantage over rivals Jan Ullrich of Germany and Italian Ivan Basso stayed unchanged, as they all finished in the same time. Basso is 2:40 back, fourth overall, with Ullrich 4:02 behind in ninth.
Vinokourov said he began the day determined to make his mark after his disappointing climb Tuesday to Courchevel.
"I kept my spirits. I said to myself 'I am still going to attack,"' Vinokourov said. "I said 'I have nothing to lose."'
He said Monday's rest day may have contributed to his difficulties the next day on the first Alpine stage.
"I think the rest day broke my rhythm a little bit," he said.
The final Alpine portion on Thursday, a 116.2-mile run from Briancon to Digne-les-Bains, takes the riders over five easier ascents. The Tour then races across southern France before entering the Pyrenees on Saturday.
"We are in a good position," Armstrong's team manager Johan Bruyneel said. "It is up to us now to defend it."