Fri, Jul 16, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Armstrong shows power in mountains

TOUR DE FRANCE The glory on Bastille Day went to Richard Virenque of France, who took his seventh stage victory with a courageous solo ride


Jan Ullrich, center, of T-Mobile Team, and Filippo Pozzato, right, of Fassa Bortolo, race downhill during the 10th stage of the Tour de France near Saint-Flour, France, Wednesday. The 237km mountain stage leads the cyclists from Limoges through the Massif Central to Saint-Flour. Lance Armstrong of the US finished even with Ullrich of Germany.


Seven seconds.

That may not seem much. But in the three-week Tour de France, the advantage Lance Armstrong gained over two rivals Wednesday by sprinting at the finish of the first mountain stage could be an important step toward the Texan's hoped-for record sixth crown.

At minimum, Armstrong struck a psychological blow by showing that his 32-year-old legs still have enough zip after the Tour's longest stage to outshine Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras -- former teammates raring to dethrone him.

But Armstrong's main rival, Jan Ullrich, wasn't caught napping.

The German, a Tour winner in 1997 and a five-time runner-up, stayed with the five-time champion. They finished in the same time, honors even.

The glory on Bastille Day went to Frenchman Richard Virenque, who took his seventh stage victory of a spotted career with a courageous solo ride, and French champion Thomas Voeckler, who retained the overall lead.

Armstrong still trails Voeckler by 9 minutes and 35 seconds. The 25-year-old Frenchman displayed his resilience by riding toward the front of main pack for much of the 237km trek from Limoges and by out-sprinting Armstrong at the finish.

Voeckler placed fifth, Armstrong sixth and Ullrich 15th -- the last in a group of 14 riders who finished together 5 minutes and 19 seconds behind Virenque's mark of 6 hours and 24 seconds.

Other Armstrong rivals Ivan Basso and Iban Mayo also finished in that bunch.

Armstrong's burst of speed on the uphill finish was to ensure that riders with him didn't open up a gap and gain time. In doing so, he left Hamilton and Heras trailing in a second group of 36 riders who finished seven seconds back.

If the Tour is close, that time may prove precious. The 101-year-old race's narrowest winning margin remains American Greg Lemond's defeat of Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1989. Last year, Armstrong beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.

"Remember Fignon? He lost by eight seconds. It can be important," said Johan Bruyneel, sports director of Armstrong's US Postal Service team.

Overall, Armstrong extended his advantage over Hamilton to 43 seconds and over Heras to 1 minute, 52 seconds. Ullrich preserved his 55-second deficit to Armstrong.

Hamilton's team manager Urs Freuler said the 33-year-old from Marblehead, Massachusetts, was poorly positioned in the final stretch, "which is why a few seconds were lost."

In a foretaste of their expected battles to come in the harder Pyrenees and Alps, Armstrong and Ullrich led the main pack up the hardest of nine climbs Wednesday -- a 5.5km ascent of Le Puy Mary, in the Massif Central region of central France.

While the climb and the stage were the hardest so far, Bruyneel said it was too early to tell whether the Texan is stronger than his challengers.

Armstrong "looked good and sounded good on the radio," Bruyneel said. "It was a hard climb ... but still very far from the finish of the race, so we can't really know now who is good and bad."

Armstrong was one of five riders called for a doping test after the stage and did not talk to reporters.

Virenque's brave escape took the darling of French cycling fans a step closer to his goal: to become the first seven-time winner of the polka dot jersey as best climber.

Despite his involvement in a 1998 doping scandal, Morocco-born Virenque is admired for his climbing panache and was cheered on by hundreds of thousands of people lining the route. He became the 14th Frenchman since World War II to win on Bastille Day and the first since Laurent Jalabert in 2001.

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