Flying Dutchman wins stage

THE last time Michael Boogerd won a stage in the Tour de France, it was the last day Lance Armstrong would ride in the Tour before being diagnosed with cancer.

In 1996 Boogerd took stage six at Aix-les-Bains and Armstrong, unknowingly already carrying 11 malignant cancers in his body, retired during the stage with flu and worried about the upcoming Olympics.

But six years is a long time in cycling, and the unhappy, ill and distracted Armstrong of then is a far cry from the sleek athlete who now looks every inch a reigning champion of the world's toughest cycle race.

Yesterday Boogerd was ecstatic with his win on stage 16, while Armstrong finished third and further stamped his authority on a race he looks increasingly like winning for the fourth time in succession.

To his credit, the Dutchman was prepared to risk disaster in search of that elusive second stage victory, charging off on his own twice on a difficult day of climbing, the second attempt proving to be enough.

His delight at matching the win in 1996 was etched into a broad grin, especially as with just a few kilometres to go it seemed a late and daring attack by Armstrong would snatch victory away.

The seeds of the win were sewn early for the Rabobank riderwho looked impatient to set a quick pace when he accelerated away by himself from a 10-man break after just 53km of the 179.5km course. That individual break came on the descent from the first of the day's two big climbs, up the 2645m Col du Galibier.

He was pulled back a short while later by Australian Stuart O'Grady but went off on his own again after 92km, at the start of the day's second major climb, the 2000m Col du Madeleine, and he never surrendered that lead.

The main chasing group, including French favourite Laurent Jalabert of CSC-Tiscali, stayed within three minutes of the flying Dutchman, while Spaniard Carlos Sastre also of CSC-Tiscali pursued ahead of them on his own.

Eight kilometres from the finish that chasing bunch was hauled in by the lead riders of the peloton, with Armstrong and all his closest rivals gathered at the front.

But if those opponents thought they had the measure of the Texan they had failed to heed the warning of just a few days ago when he simply rode away from them up the formidable Mont Ventoux to increase his lead by over a minute.

And yesterday he did almost the same thing and with a similar result. Three kilometres from the finish he accelerated away.

Within a kilometre he had caught Sastre and the two of them rode on together in an attempt to catch Boogerd.

Their chase proved futile with Boogerd winning by over a minute, but the gap back to Armstrong's rivals was 37 seconds.

The only coloured jersey to change hands was the green with Lotto's Australian Robbie McEwen collecting enough points during the day to level with German Erik Zabel from Telekom. Armstrong keeps the yellow, Jalabert stays in the polka-dot climber's jersey, and Ivan Basso will continue to ride in the top young rider's white.

Today is the first true Alpine stage of the Tour and the riders make a relatively late start from Aime to tackle four major climbs on their way to Cluses, 142km away. Three of the ascents are category one climbs, and the first - the 1968m Corme de Roselend - begins within 10km of the stage start. The finish is a long descent from the 942m Col de la Colombiere.

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