Thursday, July 15, 2004

French get holiday hero in Virenque

Armstrong sixth in Tour de France stage and overall

The Associated Press

SAINT-FLOUR, France - Frenchman Richard Virenque won the first mountain stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday, a leg that included the first jousting between five-time champion Lance Armstrong and rival Jan Ullrich.

Virenque won on Bastille Day with a strong solo ride, moving a step closer to his goal for this tour: to become the first seven-time winner of the pink-spotted jersey as best climber.

Virenque won the 147.27-mile stage, the longest of the Tour, in 6 hours, 24 seconds. It was his seventh career stage victory.

Armstrong was sixth in the stage, sprinting at the finish to come in just behind French champion and overall leader Thomas Voeckler.

Armstrong, Voeckler and Ullrich were 5 minutes, 19 seconds behind Virenque. Armstrong, a 32-year-old Texan, is sixth overall, 9 minutes, 35 seconds behind Voeckler and 55 seconds ahead of Ullrich.

In a glimpse of their expected battles in the harder Pyrenees and Alps ahead, Armstrong and Ullrich led the main pack up the hardest of nine climbs, a 3 1/2-mile ascent of Le Puy Mary, in the Massif Central region of France.

The climb grew steeper as it went up and was where Virenque first surged into the lead.

Johan Bruyneel, sports manager for Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team, said it was still too early to tell whether the five-time champ is stronger than his challengers.

Armstrong "looked good and sounded good on the radio," Bruyneel said. "It was a hard climb ... but still very far from the finish of the race, so we can't really know now who is good and bad."

Virenque became the 14th Frenchman since World War II to win on France's national holiday, and the first since Laurent Jalabert in 2001. He dedicated his win to a friend who died two days earlier and to his grandmother, who died in June. He said their memory drove him on through the pain of riding alone at the end.

"It's fabulous. I was at the end of my strength," he said. "I had cramps everywhere."

The Morocco-born Virenque rode ahead of the following pack for more than 125 miles.

Accompanied much of the way by Axel Merckx, the son of five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx, the two built a lead of more than 10 minutes. But Virenque moved ahead on the steepest climb.

At 34, Virenque is approaching the end of a career that could see him credited as being the Tour's best-ever climber if he wins the spotted jersey at the finish in Paris on July 25. He is tied with Spanish rider Federico Bahamontes and Belgian Lucien Van Impe with six mountain titles.

Virenque was a member of the Festina team that was ejected from the 1998 Tour after customs officers found a large stash of banned drugs in a team car. In a trial that followed, Virenque caused a furor with testimony on systematic drug abuse within his team and cycling.

His admission of doping led to a seven-month ban that kept him out of the 2001 Tour.

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