Pantani hits heights

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Victorious on Sunday, remarkable on Tuesday, and formidable yesterday. Miguel Indurain seems unshakeable as he pedals towards a record fifth consecutive victory in the Tour de France.

The Spanish giant rules, but the impish Marco Pantani made him prove himself before the United Nations of cycling fans who packed the 14 kilometres of l'Alpe d'Huez.

The Italian won after nearly riding into the spectator barriers at the turn into the broad finishing straight. He recovered to finish 1min 24sec clear of Indurain, who finished second for the third time in four days.

"I am especially proud of this victory because I have done it on my own," Pantani said. "This is a classic finish and only for champions. My two wins in last year's Tour of Italy were the wins that showed who I was. This confirms me as a great rider."

This was only his fourth professional win, but in last year's Tour of Italy he was second overall, and third overall in the Tour de France.

Flags of all nations waved on the slopes of Alpe d'Huez. The French were frantic when Richard Virenque, current holder of the red polka dot jersey of King of the Mountains, and his compatriot Laurent Jalabert in the green points jersey, arrived in the leading group at the foot of the climb of 22 hairpins. Then the sight of Indurain set flags waving, the Spanish screaming, and the more athletic running beside him.

"Aupa, aupa [Fantastic, fantastic] Miguel!" were the cries, mixed with "Forza!" for Pantani, shaven-headed in the style of Gianluca Vialli, one of his footballing heroes. The Italian had shot away from Indurain's group to overhaul Virenque, Jalabert and their co-leaders in the last 10 kilometres.

Indurain was content to allow Pantani some freedom, but he clamped down on his two rivals of the last few days, Switzerland's Alex Zulle and the Dane Bjarne Riis, leaving them behind over the final kilometres.

"It was by no means easy," Indurain said. "I decided to take the climb as I had done before, at my own pace."

Evgeny Berzin, the Russian leader of Riis's team and an early contender, was at their side for a moment, but in the passenger seat of a team car, having retired after 69 of the 162 kilometres (101 miles).

Tony Rominger, pretender to the Tour throne, conceded victory to Indurain after finishing more than three minutes behind Pantani. He is now 8min 19sec adrift. "There will be one Swiss on the podium in Paris, and that is Alex Zulle," he said.

Ivan Gotti, the revelation of the Gewiss-Ballan squad, rather than Riis or Berzin, held on to fifth overall. Mario Cipollini, however, a double stage-winner and the self-styled world's fastest rider, was among 11 who dropped out yesterday, leaving 143 still on the road.

TOUR DE FRANCE 10th stage (Aime-La Plagne to l'Alpe d'Huez, 162km, 101 miles): 1 M Pantani (It) Carrera 5hr 13min 14sec; 2 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto +1min 24sec; 3 A Zulle (Swit) ONCE same time; 4 B Riis (Den) Gewiss-Ballan +1:26; 5 L Madouas (Fr) Castorama +1:54; 6 F Escartin (Sp) Mapei GB +2:01; 7 L Jalabert (Fr) ONCE +2:26; 8 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +2:50; 9 I Gotti (It) Gewiss-Ballan s/t; 10 C Chiappucci (It) Carrera +3:02; 11 P Lanfranchi (It) Brescial s/t; 12 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei GB +3:08; 13 J Bruyneel (Bel) ONCE s/t; 14 P Tonkov (Rus) Lampre +3:11; 15 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina +4:58; 16 L Cubino (Sp) Kelme s/t; 17 A Mejia (Col) Motorola +5:30; 18 A Gonzales (Sp) Mapei GB; 19 F Munoz (Col) Kelme; 20 A Elli (It) MG Technogym all s/t. Selected: 62 M Sciandri (GB) MG Technogym +20:53; 88 S Yates (GB) Motorola +27:12.

Leading overall standings: 1 Indurain 42hr 32min 58sec; 2 Zulle +2:27; 3 Riis +6:00; 4 Rominger +8:19; 5 Gotti +8:20; 6 Jalabert +9:16; 7 Pantani +12:38; 8 Mauri +12:49; 9 Tonkov +12:58; 10 Escartin +13:43; 11 Chiappucci +14:10; 12 Virenque +15:46; 13 Madouas +16:17; 14 Dufaux +18:13; 15 Lanfranchi +19:19; 16 Mejia +19:42; 17 Bruyneel +20:09; 18 E Breukink (Neth) ONCE +20:13; 19 B Thibout (Fr) Castorama +21:24; 20 V Aparicio (Sp) Banesto +23:08. Selected: 53 Sciandri +1hr 00min 01sec; 101 Yates +1:27:38.

Points classification (green jersey): 1 Jalabert 186; 2 D Abdoujaparov (Uzbek) Novell 169; 3 Indurain 117. King of the Mountains (red polka dot jersey): 1 Virenque 205pts; 2 Zulle 142; 3 Indurain 112. Leading overall team standings: 1 ONCE 127hr 58min 54sec; 2 Gewiss-Ballan +20:36; 3 Mapei GB +30:49.