July 16, 2015

PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (AP) The latest from the 12th stage of the Tour de France (all times local):

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8:35 p.m.

His form returning, two-time champion Alberto Contador took his chances to test his Tour de France rivals' legs in the last race day in the Pyrenees.

The Spaniard has become a savvier rider with age. On the final climb of the 195-kilometer (121-mile) Stage 12 on Thursday, Contador jumped out of his saddle in a stern-faced attack against overall leader Chris Froome of Team Sky and other pre-race favorites.

''I had to try,'' he said. ''Sometimes, when you change the rhythm, it can produce a surprise. There was a lot of head wind, and it was complicated to open up a gap - especially against a team as strong as Sky.''

Contador couldn't hold his lead, but neither could Froome when he attacked, too.

''Today, Froome tried on two occasions to go but he could not drop us, and I believe that's good for the race,'' said Contador, who was more than four minutes back of the leader in sixth place.

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7:55 p.m.

Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme brushed off Lance Armstrong's return to French roads for a charity ride this week, saying the Texan's jaunt Thursday was ''not the same region'' where the pack was riding in Stage 12.

Prudhomme preferred to keep his mind on the race, and a visit by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to the course on Thursday - not Armstrong's ride.

''It's not the Tour, we're not in the same place, I'm here with the prime minister,'' he said.

Stripped of his seven Tour titles for doping, Armstrong was riding Thursday and Friday in France in an event aimed to help fight blood cancer.

Brian Cookson, the head of cycling governing body UCI, earlier this year called Armstrong's planned ride ''ill-advised'' and ''disrespectful to the Tour de France.''

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6:05 p.m.

Chris Froome's Team Sky says an assistant who once worked with Lance Armstrong's US Postal squad has said he never had any involvement in doping.

Peter Verbeken is known as a ''soigneur'' - a ''carer'' - a job that can involve giving massages or other support to weary riders.

The team says Verbeken joined Sky in late 2012 after working for several teams including as a ''freelancer'' for US Postal over 16 years ago.

Froome's dominant performance at this Tour de France has drawn parallels to Armstrong before the Texan was stripped of his seven Tour titles for doping.

Froome says he's clean and has never tested positive.

A Sky spokesman said by e-mail: ''Our zero tolerance policy is well-known and well-established - nowhere more so than within our own staff who have all been interviewed extensively about their careers before joining the team.''

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5:10 p.m.

Braving high heat and then a downpour, Spain's Joachim Rodriguez has won the 12th stage of the Tour de France after surging out of a breakaway group on the way to an uphill finish as the race leaves the Pyrenees mountains.

The Katusha team leader, who also won a shorter uphill finish in Stage 3, crossed the line several minutes ahead of overall race leader Chris Froome. But the Spaniard had started begun the day more than 20 minutes behind the Briton's pace.

Letting Rodriguez and other breakaway riders go was a calculated risk by Froome: His bet was that they wouldn't gain too much time on him over the 195-kilometer (121-mile) trek from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille ski station.

With about 7.5 kilometers left, Rodriguez wheeled around the world champion Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland in a switchback on the final climb and led the rest of the way.

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3:50 p.m.

Hailstones the size of peas are pelting the finish line at the Tour de France about an hour before riders scale the last Pyrenean climb in this year's race.

Sticky heat bothered the pack as it set off from Lannemezan on Thursday morning. Now they'll need their rain gear. The deluge at the finish should refresh those who were suffering as the thermometer climbed into the 30s Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) but could also make roads slick on the steep final ascent to Plateau de Beille.

Here's a video of the storm: https://twitter.com/johnleicester/status/621674950529810432

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1:20 p.m.

Lance Armstrong says he understands there are ''hard feelings'' toward him in the cycling world that will go on for a long while.

The Texan, who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping, spoke to reporters Thursday before taking part in a charity ride in southern France on the same roads Tour riders are to cover.

Some competitors in the race this year have reacted to Armstrong's presence with indifference.

In a crush of dozens of reporters, Armstrong was asked whether he believed the race was now clean. ''How can I answer that question?'' he replied. ''I am not a specialist.''

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11.50 a.m.

Chris Froome is leading the pack as Tour de France riders head off on the last and hardest of three days in the Pyrenees in Stage 12.

The 195-kilometer (121-mile) ride from Lannemezan to the Plateau de Beille ski station features four categorized climbs - starting with a short but steep ride up the Portet d'Aspet pass and an uphill finish

The British leader on Team Sky has a 2 minute, 52 second lead on American rider Tejay van Garderen, who is second, and all other pre-race favorites are at least 3 minutes behind.

Many race observers say Froome has been so dominant that it looks unlikely that he will lose the three-week race when it finishes on Paris' Champs-Elysees on July 26.

Van Garderen, Colombia's Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador of Spain say it's not over yet.

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9.30 a.m.

Like an unwanted ghost, Lance Armstrong has returned to the fringes of the Tour de France on a money-raising ride ahead of the showcase race he once ruled.

The American, stripped of his seven Tour victories for doping, set off early Thursday morning with former footballer Geoff Thomas, who is raising funds to fight blood cancer. They are riding the Tour route one day ahead of the race. Armstrong is riding two stages, starting with Thursday's trek from Venerque to Rodez.

Riding with amateurs and without hordes of fans cheering him on is a major comedown from Armstrong's heydays from 1999-2005, when winning the Tour turned the cancer survivor into a superstar.

Although Armstrong's return to French roads - shown live on national TV - is stealing some of the spotlight from the Tour, race riders were largely indifferent. Race leader Chris Froome called it ''a non-event for us.''

--- By John Leicester in Lannemezan, France.

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Eds: This version corrects the 5:10 p.m. item to indicate the distance of Stage 12 was 195 kilometers, not 192 kilometers.

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