Armstrong takes a small step

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The Independent Online

It was an emotional Tour de France victory for Lance Armstrong. The Texan rode into Limoges, pointed skywards with both hands and blew a kiss to the heavens. This one was for Fabio, his Italian team-mate, Casartelli, who died three days ago after crashing on a mountain descent in the Pyrenees.

"I like to stage a little show at the finish when I win, but this time it was not so. This was to show Fabio how much I think about him. I did it for him."

The style of the victory was typical Armstrong. Alone and in charge, as he had been on his Tour debut two years ago when he won at Verdun. And again, on a rainy day in Oslo when he snatched the world professional road race title from under some highly respected noses.

globally was agog. What could they expect next? They had to wait until last May when Armstrong, who graduated from triathlons, won the Tour DuPont, the only international stage race in the United States.

"There is a simple reason why I didn't do so well after that world title," Armstrong said. "Then, I was a rookie and underrated. I could do whatever I wanted. I did not have that label pinned on my back then. After my DuPont victory I was ambitious for a top 10 place in the Tour, but it was not long before I realised that I was not at the right level."

Jim Ochowicz, the manager of his Motorola team, was quick to point out that Armstrong was only 23. "Don't jump to conclusions about him. It takes time to build a Tour winner."

Once a rider makes his mark his rivals, and critics, are like leeches. The Tour leader Miguel Indurain knows the feeling only too well, having been trailed by Switzerland's Alex Zulle for the last week. There are still two minutes and 46 seconds between them, but today the Spanish flier will be intent on extending his lead in the final 46-km time trial at Lac Vassiviere in preparation for Sunday's victory parade on the Champs Elysees.

Yesterday Indurain finished with the main pack, 7min 54sec behind Armstrong, who escaped from 11 co-leaders at the summit of Villeneuve hill, 29 kilometres from red-hot Limoges.

The group including Max Sciandri, Britain's winner at St Etienne, broke apart to finish between 33 seconds and three minutes after the American. The 12 escapees were no threat to Indurain who left it to his Banesto team-mates to keep matters under control.

There was more bad news for French cycling yesterday, with the joint team sponsors Chazal-MBK-Koenig announcing their withdrawal after this season. Following the cessation of Castorama's sponsorship, and the collapse of Le Groupement whose riders included the world champion, Luc Leblanc, and Scotland's Robert Millar, that leaves only GAN, the sponsors of Britain's Chris Boardman, as a major team backer in a nation renowned for its cycling and its Tour.

TOUR DE FRANCE 18th stage Montpon Menesterol to Limoges, 166km, 101 miles): 1 L Armstrong (US) Motorola 3hr 47min 53sec; 2 A Ferrigato (It) Telekom- ZG +33sec; 3 V Ekimov (Rus) Novell +44sec; 4 J-C Robin (Fr) Festina same time; 5 M Den Bakker (Neth) TVM +48; 6 A Tafi (It) Mapei GB s/t; 7 M Lelli (It) Mercatone Uno +58; 8 B Cenghialta (It) Gewiss-Ballan +1:47; 9 J Bruyneel (Bel) ONCE; 10 M Sciandri (GB) MG Technogym all s/t; 11 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina +2:20; 12 R Jaermann (Swit) MG Technogym +3:00; 13 M Pantani (It) Carrera +7:35; 14 L Brochard (Fr) Festina +7:54; 15 S Colage (It) Telekom- ZG; 16 A Tchmil (Ukr) Lotto; 17 B Hamburger (Den) TVM; 18 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom-ZG; 19 B Riis (Den) Gewiss-Ballan; 20 C Chiappucci (It) Carrera all s/t.

Leading overall standings: 1 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto 88hr 7min 39sec; 2 A Zulle (Swit) ONCE +2:46; 3 Riis +5:59; 4 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE +6:26; 5 I Gotti (It) Gewiss-Ballan +9:52; 6 M Mauri (Sp) ONCE +13:02; 7 F Escartin (Sp) Mapei GB 14:03; 8 H Buenahora (Col) Kelme +14:07; 9 Chiappucci +14:35; 10 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +14:54; 11 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei GB +15:41; 12 L Madouas (Fr) Castorama 17:22; 13 Pantani +20:35; 14 P Lanfranchi (It) Brescialat +23:11; 15 Cenghialta +25:01; 16 A Mejia (Col) Motorola +30:33; 17 Hamburger +31:05; 18 Ekimov +35:30; 19 Dufaux +41:34; 20 E Breukink (Neth) ONCE +43:44.

Points classification: 1 Jalabert 305pts; 2 D Abdoujaparov (Uzbek) Novell 236; 3 Indurain 165. King of the Mountains: 1 Virenque 438; 2 Chiappucci 210; 3 Zulle 205. Overall team standings: 1 ONCE 264hr 31min 30sec; 2 Gewiss-Ballan +12:55; 3 Mapei GB +52:04.