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Armstrong gains strength in mountains

Drawing strength from the mountains again, Lance Armstrong outclassed Jan Ullrich for the third straight stage and bolstered his bid for a third consecutive Tour de France title.

Colombia's Felix Cardenas won the 12th stage between Perpignan and this ski station in the Pyrenees, with Spain's Roberto Laiseka second.

Armstrong finished third, making a late sprint in the uphill finish to beat Ullrich _ his main rival _ to the line by 23 seconds.

The Texan remained third overall but greatly reduced the lead held by Francois Simon of France and second-place Andrei Kivilev of Kazakstan. That lead is expected to shrink further in the next two stages in the Pyrenees as Armstrong steps up his attack.

Today's stage is a grueling 120-mile stretch covering six difficult mountain passes between the medieval city of Foix and Saint-Lary-Soulan.

Whoever leads by the end of the three stages in the Pyrenees will almost certainly wear the yellow jersey when the Tour finishes on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 29.

Cardenas was well ahead in the last climb of the 103-mile stretch when Armstrong and Ullrich advanced toward the front of the main pack and broke away.

Ullrich looked back repeatedly at Armstrong, expecting to be overtaken at any moment _ but nothing happened.

Then, in the final few miles, Armstrong surged ahead, opening a huge gap. Ullrich, his teeth gritted and a ring glistening in his left ear, could not react.

"I was surprised that Ullrich attacked so early in the last climb," Armstrong said. "I think that it was premature and I think he tired out early.

"But when he attacks, nobody can follow him sitting down."

Armstrong beat Ullrich by nearly two minutes Tuesday in the first of two grueling stages in the Alps and was a minute faster in the uphill time trial the next day.

Ullrich, distraught after the first two setbacks, took the latest defeat in stride.

"I rode very well today, and I'll keep doing so," the German rider for Team Telekom said. "At least I can try to keep on attacking."

If Armstrong can take the leader's yellow jersey and extend his lead over Ullrich in the Pyrenees, he is almost certain of another Tour title. The six stages after the mountains are unlikely to affect the standings substantially.

Cardenas was timed in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 34 seconds on Friday in a stage that went high into the densely wooded Pyrenees, where wild bears still roam. Armstrong was 15 seconds off the pace.

88th Tour de France

FRIDAY, STAGE 12: Colombia's Felix Cardenas won the 103.4-mile mountainous stretch from Perpignan to Ax-les-Thermes in 5 hours, 3 minutes, 34 seconds. Lance Armstrong was third, 15 seconds behind.

LEADER: Frenchman Francois Simon kept the yellow jersey with a lead of 8 minutes, 42 seconds.

TODAY, STAGE 13: A 120.47-mile ride featuring six mountain passes between Foix and Saint-Lary-Soulan.