Virenque captures first mountain stage

Updated: July 15, 2004, 11:26 AM ET
Associated Press

SAINT-FLOUR, France -- Two riders who already have made huge impressions in the Tour de France are stepping up their bids to make history.

With cycling's premier event moving closer to the daunting Pyrenees mountains, Lance Armstrong and Richard Virenque put in strong performances Wednesday in the longest stage of the race.

Virenque, a superb mountain climber with a past checkered by a drug scandal, won the 147-mile ride from Limoges after a superb solo breakaway. He finished in 6 hours, 24 seconds.

But Armstrong, trying for an unprecedented sixth straight championship, took some critical time from two key rivals. Still, he was unable to pull farther ahead of his main challenger, German Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion.

Armstrong was among five riders called for drug tests after the 10th stage and did not talk to reporters.

Sixth overall, Armstrong sits 55 seconds clear of 17th-place Ullrich entering Thursday's relatively comfortable 11th stage, a 102-mile ride to Figeac.

Previously unheralded Frenchman Thomas Voeckler leads overall.

Armstrong put seven precious seconds on American Tyler Hamilton and Spaniard Roberto Heras, his former U.S. Postal teammates.

Although trailing Voeckler by 9 minutes, 35 seconds, Armstrong extended his lead over Hamilton to 43 seconds and was 1:52 ahead of Heras at the halfway mark of the competition.

Hamilton's Phonak team manager Urs Freuler put the time loss down to misfortune.

"Tyler was not in a good position in the last kilometer of the race, which is why a few seconds were lost," Freuler said.

Virenque could become the best climber in race history. Virenque, Spaniard Federico Bahamontes and Belgian Lucien Van Impe have six mountain titles each.

Stage 11 on Thursday has only one climb of note. The ascent up Cote de Montsalvy stretches 4.9 miles at a grade averaging 6 percent. It is unlikely to tempt either Ullrich or Armstrong out of cruise control.

Little or no time is to be gained from attacking in such a quiet stage, so both will save energy for Friday's first of two daunting Pyrenees stages.

Stage 12 is a 122.7-mile trudge from Castelsarrasin to La Mongie that features two steep climbs close to the finish.

Saturday's 13th stage, a 127.7-mile grind from Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille could break weaker riders. Armstrong and Ullrich might claim huge time gains there.

On Wednesday, Virenque thrilled French fans celebrating the Bastille Day holiday with a long and daring burst. The Morocco-born Virenque rode out in front for 125 miles en route to the seventh stage victory of his career.

After dropping Axel Merckx, he rode the last 40 miles alone -- his tongue lolling from dehydration and exhaustion.

"I was at the end of my strength," he said. "I had cramps everywhere."

Virenque was a member of the Festina team that was ejected from the 1998 race after customs officers found a large stash of banned drugs in a team car. He was banned for seven months.

However thrilling Virenque's win, it should be put into perspective. Neither Armstrong, Ullrich, Hamilton nor the other main challengers attempted to match his pace.

Armstrong wound up sixth, 5 minutes, 19 seconds behind. Ullrich finished 19th in the same time. Hamilton was 26th, 5:26 off the winning time.

Johan Bruyneel, Postal's sports manager, reserves judgment on whether Armstrong is stronger than Ullrich or the other principal challengers.

"We're still very far from the finish of the race, so we can't really know now who is good and bad," Bruyneel said. "Everybody gets more tired. It's the ones who are fresh and who maintain condition who will win."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press