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ARMSTRONG REGAINS TOUR LEAD IN ALPINE SPRINT

VILLARD-DE-LANS, France -- Lance Armstrong retook the overall lead in the Tour de France today, outsprinting his top two challengers to win the first stage in the Alps and close in on a record sixth straight title.

Armstrong moved past Ivan Basso and 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich in the curves before the closing stretch to claim his second stage victory in the 2004 Tour and the 18th of his illustrious career. He also has won two team time trials.

Armstrong gritted his teeth and punched the air after beating Basso, Ullrich and Andreas Kloden in a sprint finish, clocking four hours, 40 minutes and 30 seconds for the 180.5 kilometers (113 miles) to Villard-de-Lans from Valreas. It was Armstrong's third stage win this year.

The 32-year-old Texan earned bonus seconds for winning the stage, extending his lead on second-place Basso to 1 minute, 25 seconds. If he can hold that advantage for two more days in the Alps and in a time trial on Saturday, Armstrong will pedal into the history books when the three-week cycling marathon ends on the crowd-packed Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday.

Seeking to become the first six-time winner in the event's 101-year history, Armstrong took the race lead from Thomas Voeckler, who spent 10 days in yellow.

"We'll go as hard as we can tomorrow," Armstrong said after taking the 61st yellow jersey of his career. "I'll have the advantage of going last."

Starting in Bourg-d'Oisans, riders will set out one-by-one on the 15.5-kilometer individual race against the clock up one of the Tour's most famous mountain climbs. Armstrong won six of nine time trials in the past five years, including the 2001 edition in the Alpine town of Chamrousse.

Organizers expect about a million people to line the road along the 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d'Huez, where the 32-year-old Texan will be aiming to better the late Marco Pantani's time of 37.35 minutes.

Ullrich, the 1997 champion and one of the pre-race favorites, made a break midway through today's stage only to be reeled in by Armstrong's group. After finishing three seconds behind Armstrong, he trails by seven minutes.

Although a great champion in his own right, Armstrong wouldn't be closing in on sporting history were it not for his loyal and tireless squad of support riders who have steamrolled rivals from the get-go.

Armstrong gets the laurels, the sponsorships, the worldwide fame. George Hincapie, Viatcheslav Ekimov and the six other unsung heroes in Armstrong's blue-jerseyed U.S. Postal Service team -- nicknamed "The Blue Train" -- get satisfaction in knowing that he wouldn't be where he is without them.

"The Blue Train is the muscle behind it, is the brawn," Armstrong acknowledged last week. "This is the best team ever."

Like Rome, victories in the three-week cycling marathon aren't built in a day. Stage by grueling stage, first on the flats of Belgium and northern France and then in the peaks of the Pyrenees, Armstrong's Postals have hewn a path to the podium in Paris next Sunday.

On in-between days across northern and western France, the Postals herded the unruly pack like sheepdogs, often leading from the front, shielding Armstrong from wind and crashes and ensuring he didn't lack drinks.

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