Sunday, July 13, 2003

Armstrong comes up short in Alps

Virenque wins stage, wears yellow

The Associated Press

MORZINE, France - Legs whirring, shirt open, a silver chain bouncing against his chest, Lance Armstrong powered up the Tour de France's first big climb, fans' cheers ringing in his ears.

By the top of the Col de la Ramaz, at 5,342 feet, two riders viewed as threats to Armstrong's quest for a record-tying fifth straight Tour title were struggling far behind.

Other key challengers stayed nearby.

Enduring to the end, Richard Virenque of France held on Saturday to win the seventh stage, the Tour's longest and the first of seven days in the punishing mountains.

Virenque, still a darling of French cycling fans despite his involvement in a drug scandal that rocked the 1998 Tour, grabbed the front-runner's yellow jersey and the spotted jersey for the best mountain climber.

"It's magic," the Quick Step-Davitamon team member said. "I dared - today was a day for taking dares."

Armstrong, 31, aiming to match Miguel Indurain's five successive victories, finished 15th, 4 minutes, 6 seconds behind. That put him second overall, 2:37 behind Virenque, with 13 days of racing to go.

On the 8.9-mile climb up to the Ramaz pass, the Texan showed the determination that makes him so feared.

With gray cliff faces towering above, Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates picked up the pace. Armstrong removed his sunglasses, uncovering eyes almost glazed in concentration.

Behind, exhausted riders began to peel away. Among them: Giro d'Italia champion Gilberto Simoni and Santiago Botero, the best climber on the 2000 Tour. By the finish, both lost more than 6:00 to Armstrong, with Botero 74th and Simoni 77th.

Those who stayed with Armstrong included 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, Spaniards Iban Mayo and Joseba Beloki, and American Tyler Hamilton, racing despite breaking his collarbone in a crash on the Tour's second day.

Ullrich, coming back from a doping ban and knee operations, looks particularly strong. He trails Armstrong by 38 seconds overall. Beloki, the 2002 runner-up, is 32 seconds behind.

"Ullrich is a big motor: He has won here and competed several times," said Armstrong's spokesman, Jogi Muller. "If his knee is holding up, then he is one of the main threats, no question."

A key day comes today, with the 8,728-foot Galibier pass.

"Lance said today was very hard, but we're not worried about the position at the moment. The real test for us is tomorrow, with the Col du Galibier," Muller said. "He's very confident about it."

At 142.9 miles, with three passes over 3,300 feet, Saturday's leg from Lyon and temperatures in the 80s proved too much for seven riders who dropped out. They included Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, the sprint sensation, who won four of six relatively flat early stages.

"It was a bit of a shock to hit the mountains for the first time," said Armstrong's teammate, George Hincapie, who finished 93rd. "Overall the team did pretty OK."

Tens of thousands of fans lined the route through alpine foothills and passes, turning the stage into a daylong celebration of cycling.

Fans spray-painted slogans such as "Allez Armstrong!" on the road.

Virenque broke away with a small group of riders early in the stage and held on. Last year, he won the climb up Mont Ventoux, marking his comeback from a doping ban.

Virenque was a member of the Festina team that was kicked out of the 1998 Tour after customs officers found banned drugs in a team car. In the trial that followed, Virenque testified about systematic drug abuse within his team and cycling in general. His admission of doping led to a seven-month ban.

Virenque doesn't expect to keep the overall lead to the finish July 27.

"I used up a lot of watts today. I'm sure I'll pay for it," the Frenchman said.

Tour at a glance

Seventh stage: Lyon to Morzine, 142.9 miles in the French Alps. It's the longest stage of the Tour.

Winner: Richard Virenque, France. The five-time King of the Mountains claimed his sixth

career stage victory in 6 hours,

6 minutes, 3 seconds.

How others fared: Four-time

winner Lance Armstrong finished 15th. Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion, was 21st. Tyler Hamilton of the United States rode with a fractured collarbone and placed 25th. Gilberto

Simoni of Italy, a talented climber, was just 77th.

Out of the Race: Alessandro Petacchi, who won four of the first six stages, and Marco Velo of Italy; Jaan Kirsipuu of Estonia; Jesus Manzano and Luis Perez of Spain; Olaf Pollack and Michael Rich of Germany. 187 riders remain from the 198 that started.

Quote of the Day: "It's magic. I dared - today was a day for

taking dares." - Virenque.

Next Stage: Sallanches to L'Alpe d'Huez, 135.78 miles up the Tour's second alpine climb -

featuring the ascent up the Col du Galibier, which peaks at 8,728 1/2 feet.

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