Cycling: Pantani finds second wind and climbs to another win

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Marco Pantani, a doubtful starter in the Tour de France yesterday, ended the day without doubt the champion of the Alps. Forty-eight hours after conquering the twisting L'Alpe d'Huez climb, the Italian produced another "David" performance to beat the Goliaths into another ski resort at Morzine.

Yet Pantani hinted after suffering through Sunday's stage that he might pull out because he had respiratory trouble caused by a sore throat and a stuffy nose.

"I had the legs on Sunday but my problem was breathing," he said after finishing alone with 1min 17sec to spare. "I felt a little better today, especially as the race progressed."

His manager, Giuseppe Martinelli, urged him to hang on. "He told me I had to make it to Paris and give a show of tenacity," Pantani said. "I believe that I went to my limit on Sunday, especially on the Col de la Madeleine, but this second victory taught me that I should never give up."

Pantani admits to being "a bit of a complainer", and on that final mountain, the Col de Joux Plane, he made quite a few complaints as he danced on the pedals, widening the gap with every pump of his spindly legs. He made the Tour leader, Jan Ullrich, his chief rival, Richard Virenque, and Bjarne Riis, last year's winner, look pedestrian on the most difficult of six mountains on the 208.5km from Courchevel.

Not only did Pantani steal the day with his attack in the last 15 kilometres, he also dislodged Riis from third place overall, and is now 1:42 clear of the Dane. Ullrich remained unmoved in the yellow jersey with a cushion of 6:22 over Virenque, who is 193 points clear of the German in the mountains category. Ullrich steadily shadowed Virenque, allowing him to force the pace, which also saw off Riis and others as they toiled over the Joux Plane mountain.

Yesterday Pantani towered over his chief rivals but he knows that a place on Sunday's podium in Paris, which third position brings, has yet to be won. "Winning two stages is the most wonderful recognition I could have, but keeping third overall is not so sure, especially with Saturday's time trial." The 63km stage starts and finishes at Disneyland, but Pantani, a master in the mountains, will be hard-pressed to hold back the clock.

Pantani has been dubbed Elefantino as his shaven head emphasises his ears, but he prefers Il Pirata. Until he shaved off his small beard the Italian, with a gold ring in one ear, looked every inch a buccaneer on a bike.

His career was in doubt two years ago when a collision with a car during a race shattered his left shin, and put him out of racing for 16 months. Pantani's record for injury goes back to his youth racing days, and to underline the frailty of a man versus bike he took a tumble in May when a straying moggy caused havoc in the Giro d'Italia.

A further example of that frailty came earlier yesterday. Before the hard driving of the race favourites blew the field apart once more, Laurent Jalabert, ranked world No 1 in road racing, fired a final desperate salvo.

He spent a lonely 80 kilometres trying to salvage something from the Tour which in the past has brought him two victories in the points category and two days in the yellow jersey. But once he was overhauled at the summit of the Col de la Colombiere, the Frenchman slid back into the obscurity of finishing more than 23 minutes behind Pantani, who hurtled into Morzine from a hair-raising descent of eight kilometres.

No one had chased Pantani, and Virenque admitted he had made a tactical error in believing that Ullrich and Riis would have reeled in the Italian.

TOUR DE FRANCE 15th stage (130 miles; Courchevel to Morzine): 1 M Pantani (It) MER 5hr 57min 16sec (ave speed 22mph); 2 R Virenque (Fr) FES +1min 17sec; 3 J Ullrich (Ger) TEL +1:17; 4 B Zberg (Swit) MER +1:59; 5 F Casagrande (It) SAE +1:59; 6 B Julich (US) COF +1:59; 7 F Escartin (Sp) KEL 1:59; 8 B Riis (Den) TEL +2:06; 9 JM Jimenez (Sp) BAN +2:37; 10 O Camenzind (Swit) MAP +3:29; 11 A Olano (Sp) BAN +3:29; 12 G Guerini (It) PLT +3:29; 13 U Bolts (Ger) TEL +3:45; 14 L Roux (Fr) TVM +3:49; 15 M Beltran (Sp) BAN +4:02; 16 L Madouas (Fr) LOT +4:02; 17 R Conti (It) MER +4:08; 18 A Casero (Sp) BAN +5:02; 19 P Chanteur (Fr) CSO +5:11. Selected: 38 M Sciandri (GB) FDJ 13:36.

Overall standings: 1 Ullrich 76hr 58min 59sec; 2 Virenque +6min 22sec; 3 M Pantani +10:13; 4 Riis +11:55; 5 Escartin +16:05; 6 Olano +16:40; 7 Casagrande +17:14; 8 Jimenez +23:42; 9 Conti +28:20; 10 L Dufaux (Swi) FES +29:46. Selected: 36 L Jalabert (Fr) ONC +1.33:17; 67 Sciandri +2.11:22. Points: 1 E Zabel (Ger) TEL 288pts; 2 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN 195; 3 J Blijlevens (Ned) TVM 168; 4 Ullrich 132; 5 Virenque 129; 6 M Traversoni (It) MER 126; 7 N Minali (It) BAT 121; 8 R McEwen (Aus) RAB 119; 9 F Simon (Fr) GAN 106; 10 Riis 96. King of the mountains: 1 Virenque 517pts; 2 Ullrich 324; 3 Casagrande 250; 4 Pantani 242; 5 L Brochard (Fr) FES 238; 6 Dufaux 194; 7 P Herve (Fr) FES 158; 8 Riis 139; 9 Escartin 125; 10 Jimenez. Teams: 1 Telekom 231hr 45min 45sec; 2 Mercatone Uno +12min 21sec; 3 Festina +21:51; 4 Banesto +26:31; 5 Kelme +1.34:07; 6 Mapei +1.37:07; 7 Rabobank +2.04:28; 8 Lotto +2.54:23; 9 Casino +3.08:16; 10 La Francaise des Jeux +3.11:06.