BRIANCON, France – Lance Armstrong (search) took it easy during a tough mountain stage at the Tour de France. It was a sure sign the six-time defending champ was in total control.
While Alexandre Vinokourov (search) outpaced Santiago Botero (search) to the finish line in Wednesday's 11th stage, Armstrong saved energy, minimized any serious time losses and maintained the overall lead.
"Our objective today was to stay together," Armstrong said. "We wanted to be as conservative and relaxed as possible, and I think we did it."
Fans packed the roadside Thursday to celebrate Bastille Day (search), France's national holiday, as the 12th stage began. With 12 days done and 11 left, 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.
"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," Armstrong 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, but at the same time I am ready to move on."
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 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 wasn't overly concerned when Vinokourov rode off into the distance Wednesday, his sky-blue Kazakh national champion's jersey standing out in the rugged, gray 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.
Vinokourov earned a time bonus for winning and cut his deficit to Armstrong to 4:47, climbing to 12th overall.
"If the objective was to win the stage, then mission accomplished," Armstrong said. "If the objective was to blow up the Discovery Channel team, then mission not accomplished."
With 1997 Tour winner and five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany 4:02 behind in ninth place and Ivan Basso of Italy in fourth spot, 2:40 adrift, an unexpected face is emerging. Mickael Rasmussen of Denmark is 38 seconds behind in second place.
"He is riding strong, climbing very well," Armstrong said. "He is now a threat in the race."
However, Rasmussen's Rabobank team is much weaker than Discovery, which severely limits his chances.
Armstrong needs do little more than shadow Rasmussen, knowing any small gains the Dane takes will likely be eliminated in the penultimate stage time trial — where Armstrong shines.
Thursday's final Alpine climb is a 116.2-mile route from Briancon to Digne-les-Bains and takes the riders over five lesser ascents. The Tour then races across southern France before entering the Pyrenees on Saturday.
Once safely over those, Armstrong will have the Champs-Elysees in his sights.