Virenque puts bad times in the past

Tour de France: Pantani pays for tactical error on final mountain stage as Ullrich takes advantage of Armstrong's struggles
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The Independent Online

When a chink showed in Lance Armstrong's yellow jersey armour on the Tour de France, Marco Pantani was missing. The scourge of the mountains, who had shadowed the American throughout the lumpier stages, made a tactical blunder on the picture postcard route to Morzine, and paid heavily in time.

When a chink showed in Lance Armstrong's yellow jersey armour on the Tour de France, Marco Pantani was missing. The scourge of the mountains, who had shadowed the American throughout the lumpier stages, made a tactical blunder on the picture postcard route to Morzine, and paid heavily in time.

With Pantani floundering on the last of the day's five Alpine climbs it was left to Richard Virenque and Jan Ullrich to make the thrust that slashed Armstrong's overnight lead of seven minutes and 26 seconds by two minutes.

Finally, and after 17 days, the pride of France and Germany got their respective acts together on the 122 miles from Courchevel. It was an impressive show with terrain to match, and the thousands who lined the final climb of Joux-Plane saw the drama unfold.

It ended with Virenque, the "bad boy" of the Tour but still the darling of France, racing home for his first Tour stage success since 1997 when he won at Courchevel, yesterday's start. His finish was made easier by the fall of the Spaniard Roberto Heras less than two miles from the end.

"This victory means a lot to me," Virenque said. "It is a pity that Heras fell, but he would have struggled to beat me in a sprint. It was a great moment of my life. All the bad times I try to forget and retain the best."

It will be back to the bad times in October for Virenque, who goes on trial following the doping investigations that followed the 1998 Tour. Then, he and his Festina team-mates were sent home after some of their management were implicated in doping when team worker Willi Voet was caught with a car-load of forbidden substances. Last year the Union Cycliste Internationale overruled the Tour organisers when they attempted to stop Virenque taking part in the race.

"Mentally, it has all made me stronger, and when another rider shouted to me, 'Go Richard, go', it was good to know that I still had friends."

Virenque might have had a fight to win, but his co-leader, Heras, was too fast into a bend, and crashed into the spectator barriers. He remounted to chase in with Ullrich, whose second placing did the damage to what had seemed an unassailable advantage for Armstrong.

Earlier, Virenque had countered Ullrich's biggest move of the Tour, and their joint efforts had Armstrong in trouble over the last 11 miles.

"It was the hardest day of my life as a racer," Armstrong said, explaining that he had suffered fringale (hunger pangs caused by low blood sugar, which can lead to light-headedness). "I was in a bad way, and I knew I was in trouble. I had to fight as hard as I could to stay in control."

The sight of the Texan sagging after days of total domination was enough for Virenque.

"When you see a rider like Armstrong drop back it is a hell of a morale-booster," he said after finishing 24 seconds ahead of Ullrich. "I also have to thank Pantani because he blew the race open from the start."

As a grimacing Virenque went in search of Heras, who had overhauled three earlier leaders, Pantani, flanked by two team-mates was pedalling almost gently by his standards, and he finished 13min 44sec behind the Frenchman.

The Italian had marked his return to the top after a year's lay-off by winning two mountain stages in four days. Yesterday the man known as Il Pirata (the Pirate) was scuppered by his own enthusiasm. He was involved in an escape which had its first taste of grief when he, the Colombian Santiago Botero and the Spaniard Marcos Serrano, fell on a long descent.

Serrano left with fractured ribs while Pantani went on to indulge in a 50-mile breakaway. He led over three mountains, including the Col des Aravis, on the birthday of the great Gino Bartali, who died earlier this year. Fifty-two years ago, Bartali was first over the Aravis, and if that was not inspiration enough for an Italian, Pantani may have been dreaming of a repeat of his 1997 win at Morzine.

Amid the celebrations in Morzine, Virenque thoughtfully dedicated his victory to the 12-year-old boy who was fatally injured on Friday by a Tour vehicle. He was from Virenque's region, the Var.

To reduce risks on the route, 500 of the 1,500 accredited vehicles have been ordered to take the alternative route laid down for articulated trucks and team coaches, and so avoid having to overtake the massive publicity caravan. Before the start of yesterday's stage, riders and officials observed a minute's silence in memory of the youngster.

TOUR DE FRANCE 16th stage (Courchevel to Morzine 196.5km, 122 miles): 1 R Virenque (Fr) Polti 5hr 32min 20sec; 2 J Ullrich (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +24sec; 3 R Heras (Sp) Kelme +27; 4 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme +1:09; 5 J Beloki (Sp) Festina +1:11; 6 P Herve (Fr) Polti same time; 7 G Trentin (It) Vini Caldirola +2:01; 8 L Armstrong (US) US Postal; 9 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 10 S Botero (Col) Kelme all s/t; 11 D Atienza (Sp) Saeco +2:05; 12 R Conti (It) Vini Caldirola +2:13; 13 F Mancebo (Sp) Banesto +2:25; 14 J Otxoa (Sp) Kelme; 15 M Beltran (Sp) Mapei all s/t; 16 D Nardello (It) Mapei +2:55; 17 G Verheyen (Bel) Lotto +3:18; 18 A Kivilev (Kaz) AG2R +3:20; 19 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Deutsche Telekom +3:23; 20 D Rous (Fr) Bonjour +3:38. Selected: 65 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +28:22; 73 L Jalabert (F) ONCE + 30:55; 117 A Zülle (Swit) Banesto s/t. Leading overall standings: 1 Armstrong 2hr 12min 30sec; 2 Ullrich +5min 37sec; 3 Beloki +6:38; 4 Heras +6:43; 5 Virenque +7:36; 6 Moreau +8:22; 7 Botero +10:19; 8 Escartin +11:35; 9 Mancebo +13:07; 10 Beltran +13:08; 11 Herve +13:50; 12 Nardello +14:28; 13 Otxoa +15:47; 14 M Pantani (It) Mercatone Uno +20:46; 15 F Garcia Casas (Sp) Festina +25:48; 16 K van de Wouwer (Bel) Lotto +26:30; 17 R Conti (It) Vini Caldirola +29:22; 18 J M Jimenez (Sp) Banesto +29:47; 19 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +30:22; 20 Trentin +31:41. Selected: 47 Zülle +1:26:01; 60 Jalabert +1:47:58; 66 Millar +2:04:48. Points classification: 1 E Zabel (Ger) Deutsche Telekom 218; 2 R Vainsteins (Lat) Vini Caldirola 110; 3 E Dekker (Neth) Rabobank 105; 4 R McEwen (Aus) Farm Frites 100; 5 E Magnien (Fr) Française des Jeux 92; 6 Botero 90; 7 Armstrong 85; 8 S Zanini (It) Mapei 81; 9 F Simon (Fr) Bonjour 78; 10 Ullrich 70. Mountains classification: 1 Botero 347; 2 Otxoa 283; 3 Virenque 62; 4 Herve 218; 5 Pantani 174; 6 Armstrong 162; 7 N Mattan (Bel) Cofidis 158; 8 Escartin (Sp) Kelme 143; 9 Heras (Sp) Kelme 113; 10 J Beloki (Sp) Festina 112. Team classification: 1 Kelme 216:54:01; 2 Banesto +15:06; 3 Festina +16:40; 4 Deutsche Telekom +55:36; 5 Rabobank +1:14:06.