Cycling: Tour de France - Escartin escapes as the elite toil

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FERNANDO ESCARTIN belied his jockey-like appearance with a powerful solo performance that brought him his first major Tour stage victory yesterday.

It was the one the Spaniard wanted most of all as the Tour de France headed close to his home in Spain and it shook up the overall standings on a day when the leader, Lance Armstrong, and the American's main rivals for the yellow jersey all featured prominently.

Escartin's solo charge lasted over the final 33 kilometres and took in the final mountain climb to the border ski station of Piau-Engaly, which was the longest of the day at 13km and the highest at 1,800m. Urged on by Spanish fans who crowded the final climb, he came home two minutes clear of Switzerland's Alex Zulle and the Frenchman Richard Virenque.

In nine years as a professional, he had managed two third placings in Alpine stages.

"I have never won stages because I am not nasty enough," said the man who blew a kiss to the sky in his moment of triumph. "I had marked this stage with a cross in my race book because I so badly wanted to win it. When I crossed the line I thought of all the years of hard work, all the stages that I did not win, and all the years I spent in the shadow of Tony Rominger."

Switzerland's Rominger won three Vuelta a Espana between 1992 and 1994 and the 1995 Giro d'Italia, and was second in the 1993 Tour to Miguel Indurain, who also overshadowed Escartin. Indurain has retired after five Tour triumphs, and another of Spain's best, Abraham Olano caved in yesterday under a flurry of attacks that toppled him from second overall to more than 12 and a half minutes off the pace.

Escartin filled the vacancy, and stands 6min 19sec behind Armstrong who finished fourth yesterday, 2min 10sec behind the Spaniard.

"I cannot think of the yellow jersey. Armstrong's advantage is too big," said Escartin, who has been runner-up in the Vuelta to Zulle and Olano in the past two years.

Armstrong set a punishing pace on the final pass and seemed to have dropped Virenque and Zulle, but theyfought back to return the compliment, leaving the Texan to ride home alone while they disputed the second place in the 173km stage from St-Gaudens.

"I paid for my earlier efforts," Armstrong said. "I was too fatigued in the last three kilometres. The next stage is hard and long, and I am not ready to say that I have won this Tour. I am always an optimist though."

Escartin's drive mopped up the remnants of an earlier breakaway of seven, and in his wake there were attacks, fight-backs, and a few frights as other major contenders responded to the ever-active Armstrong. Olano fell on the long winding descent from the Col de Peyresourde, which the Tour climbed for the 53rd time in its 86 years, and Zulle had a nervous moment descending through a hairpin bend. Wladimir Belli, the Italian Festina rider, who is lying ninth overall, rolled to a halt on the first curve, a few blades of grass separating the Italian from a sheer drop.

Zulle, who is still third overall, can look back on this Tour, and rue the delay behind a crash that cost him more than six minutes on the second stage to St Nazaire. Spills and mishaps have littered his career, usually at crucial moments, and but for that delay in the first week he could have been well placed today.

Apart from Olano's bad day on the six mountain climbs yesterday, the Russian Pavel Tonkov slid further into obscurity after cracking during the Armstrong-Zulle purge.

And there is no rest ahead. The riders considered yesterday's stage the decisive mountain race, but today's offers a challenge that could prove too much for many. Four mountains whose reputations in Tour history date back to 1910 punctuate the 192km to Pau, notably the 2,115m Col du Tourmalet, which will test a weary Tour pack for the 71st year. Gustave Garrigou won a special prize of 100 French francs 89 years ago for being the only competitor to ride over the Tourmalet without stopping or walking.

The following year he won the Tour but Paul Duboc, who was considered the better man, drank something of unknown origins from a bottle. On the descent of the Tourmalet he suffered severe stomach cramp, and lay at the side of the road for an hour before he could continue. When the Tour reached Duboc's home town of Rouen, an angry crowd gathered and the organisers, fearing that Garrigou might be lynched, disguised the race leader, and with an escort of three cars he was able to pass through the town.

If Armstrong can protect his lead today, there will be no disguising the strength of his claim to victory in Paris.


15TH STAGE (173km St Gaudens to Piau-Engaly): 1 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme 5hr 19min 49sec; 2 A Zulle (Swit) Banesto at 2min 1second; 3 R Virenque (Fr) Polti, same time; 4 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +2:10; 5 K van de Wouwer (Bel) Lotto +2:37; 6 A Casero (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros, st; 7 D Nardello (It) Mapei +2:45; 8 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco, st; 9 F Garcia (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +3:39; 10 W Belli (It) Festina +4:00; 11 M Beltran (Sp) Banesto +5:03; 12 A Elli (It) Telekom +6:07; 13 R Meier (Swit) Cofidis +6:26; 14 T Hamilton (US) US Postal; 15 M Lelli (It) Cofidis, both st; 16 F Mancebo (Sp) Banesto +6:40; 17 D Etxebarria (Sp) ONCE +7:01; 18 A Olano (Sp) ONCE; 19 A Peron (It) ONCE, both st; 20 A Galdeano (Sp) Vitalicio Seguros +8:09. Selected: 23 P Tonkov (Rus) Mapei +11:16; 82 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +36:48; 114 C Boardman (GB) st.

Overall standings: 1 Armstrong 72hr 45min 27sec; 2 Escartin +6min 19sec; 3. Zulle +7:26; 4 Dufaux +8:36; 5 Virenque +9:46; 6 Nardello+11:33; 7 Casero +11:40; 8 Olano +12:35; 9 Belli +15:16; 10 Van de Wouwer +16:41; 11 Peron +18:23; 12 Tonkov +19:24; 13 Etxebarria +20:10; 14 B Salmon (Fr) Casino +21:01; 15 Beltran +21:22; 16 Meier +21:43; 17 C Moreau (Fr) Festina +21:59; 18 S Heulot (Fr) La Francaise de Jeux +22:21; 19 Hamilton +23:30; 20 P Lanfranchi (It) Mapei +24:09. Selected: 59 Boogerd +01:21:13; 130 Boardman +2.18:18.

Mountains standings: 1 Virenque 237pts; 2 M Piccoli (It) Lampre 168; 3 Armstrong 159; 4 Escartin 150; 5 A Elli (It) Telekom 130.

Points standings: 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 240; 2 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole 230; 3 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat 158; 4 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole 140; 5 G Hincapie (US) US Postal 139.

Team standings: 1 Banesto 218.37:07; 2 ONCE +6:27; 3 Festina +11:04; 4 Mapei +11:18; 5 Kelme +13:44.