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Armstrong maintains his big lead

For Lance Armstrong, every second counts in the three-week Tour de France.

Spanish rival Joseba Beloki surprised him briefly in Tuesday's 15th stage _ the longest at 140.43 miles _ by surging ahead in the final stretch.

Such a late challenge only would have taken a few seconds off Armstrong's big overall lead, but even that was too much for the American.

He gave chase and crossed the line just behind Beloki, clocking the same time. His overall advantage of 4 minutes, 21 seconds over Beloki was unchanged, and he remained on course for a fourth straight title.

"Les Deux-Alpes, it's not too hard, it's not good for attacking," Armstrong said after the stage, which Colombian rider Santiago Botero won in 5:55:16.

Armstrong was ninth, 6:41 off the pace. Botero's win was his second in this Tour. He is seventh in the overall standings, 11:31 behind Armstrong.

Ullrich ban: 6 months

The 1997 Tour de France champion, Jan Ullrich, was banned from cycling for six months after testing positive for amphetamines.

Ullrich was given half the maximum suspension and was fined $1,400, the German cycling federation said. Though officially six months, Ullrich's ban expires March 24 to take into account the winter offseason.

A three-person disciplinary panel decided to impose the minimum penalty because it determined Ullrich did not take the amphetamines to enhance his performance. Ullrich tested positive for amphetamines in an unannounced out-of-competition test June 12.

Tour de France

TUESDAY: 15th stage, 140.4 miles from Vaison-la-Romaine in the southern Provence region to Les Deux-Alpes, a ski station.

WINNER: Santiago Botero of Colombia, in 5 hours, 55 minutes, 16 seconds.

HOW OTHERS FARED: Three-time champion Lance Armstrong retained the overall lead despite finishing ninth, 6:41 behind Botero. Armstrong's lead over second-place Joseba Beloki in the standings was unchanged at 4:21.

TODAY: 16th stage, 111.3 miles from Les Deux-Alpes to La Plagne, featuring three exceptionally difficult climbs. It is expected to be the toughest stage.