NIMES, FRANCE — NIMES, France - As much as traveling 119.6 miles on a hot, windy day can be, it was an easy ride through the verdant French countryside yesterday at the Tour de France for all the cyclists who still think of themselves as contenders.
Aitor Gonzalez of Spain, a 29-year-old rider for the Fassa Bortolo, has never completed an entire Tour de France, but he raised his hands in triumph yesterday by winning the 14th stage, a steamy, flat ride from Carcassonne to this city of Roman ruins on the edge of Provence. Gonzalez became the first Spaniard to win a stage in a year when Spaniards had high hopes that one of their own, Iban Mayo most probably, could unseat five-time defending champion Lance Armstrong.
It won't be a Spaniard who defeats Armstrong this year. It seems more likely that only Armstrong can keep himself from winning an unprecedented sixth straight title.
After a punishing two days in the Pyrenees where he took more than nine minutes from the lead of Thomas Voeckler and left most of his other top rivals with apparently insurmountable deficits or out of the race entirely, Armstrong and his U.S. Postal teammates rode at a leisurely pace, content to finish 14:12 behind Gonzalez.
Armstrong remains in second place overall, 22 seconds behind Voeckler.
Voeckler, an appealing 25-year-old who has stamped himself as a future winner of the Tour, happily accepted another day as owner of the yellow jersey that is worn by the overall leader. He crossed the finish line on Armstrong's wheel and afterward Voeckler said he felt a sense of accomplishment and contentment.
It has been almost 20 years since a Frenchman has won the race. Voeckler, with a gutsy piece of riding Saturday, proved a lot of people wrong. He continually fell behind the leaders only to stand up in the pedals and push himself further and kept hold of the yellow jersey instead of surrendering it to Armstrong. Voeckler will wear the maillot jaune for a ninth time when the Tour resumes tomorrow after a final rest day.
"Whatever else happens," Voeckler, a member of the French team Brioches La Boulangere, said yesterday, "the pressure on me is gone. We crossed the Pyrenees with the yellow jersey and that fulfilled our ambitions. Every other day now that I hold it is a bonus."
Voeckler has charmed fans here with his constant smile and gracious behavior after each day of his first-place reign. Born on the island of Martinique, Voeckler speaks precise English and has patiently answered questions and told of his respect for the race, its history and the future of French cycling, which seemed bleak until the past 10 days.
For the past four days, the crowd has been speckled more and more with "Merci, Thomas" signs. Bernard Hinault in 1985 was the last Frenchman to win the Tour and Voeckler's holding of the yellow jersey for eight stages is the best showing by a hometown boy since 1992.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Tour at a glance
Yesterday: A flat, 119.6-mile course from Carcassonne to Nimes.
Winner: Aitor Gonzalez, Spain, Fassa Bortolo, 4 hours, 18 minutes, 32 seconds.
How others fared: Lance Armstrong, United States, U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, 14 minutes, 12 seconds behind. Ivan Basso, Italy, Team CSC, same time as Armstrong.
Yellow jersey: French cyclist Thomas Voeckler of Brioches La Boulangere keeps the leader's shirt.
Today: Rest day.