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Rivals start to fall in Alps

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

MORZINE, France Legs whirring, shirt open, a silver chain bouncing against his chest, Lance Armstrong powered up the Tour de France's first big climb, fans' cheers ringing in his ears.

By the top of the Col de la Ramaz, at 5,342 feet, two riders viewed as threats to Armstrong's quest for a record-tying fifth straight Tour title were struggling far behind.

Other key challengers, however, stayed nearby.

Clearly, the road to Paris and victory is going to be long.

Enduring to the end, Richard Virenque of France held on Saturday to win the seventh stage, the Tour's longest and the first of seven days in the punishing mountains.

Virenque, still a darling of French cycling fans despite his involvement in a drug scandal that rocked the 1998 Tour, grabbed the front-runner's yellow jersey and the spotted jersey for the best mountain climber.

''It's magic,'' the Quick Step-Davitamon team member said. ''I dared today was a day for taking dares.''

Armstrong, aiming to match Miguel Indurain's five successive victories, finished 15th, 4 minutes, 6 seconds behind. That put him second overall, 2:37 behind Virenque, with 13 days of racing to go.

On the 8.9-mile climb up to the Ramaz pass, the 31-year-old Texan showed the determination that makes him so feared.

With gray cliff faces towering above, Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates picked up the pace. Armstrong removed his sunglasses, uncovering eyes almost glazed in concentration.

Behind, exhausted riders began to peel away. Among them: Giro d'Italia champion Gilberto Simoni and Santiago Botero, the best climber on the 2000 Tour. By the finish, both lost more than 6:00 to Armstrong, with Botero 74th and Simoni 77th.

''It was good,'' said Armstrong's spokesman, Jogi Muller. ''We already have two challengers Botero and Simoni out of the reckoning.''

Now for the rest.

Those who stayed with Armstrong included 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, Spaniards Iban Mayo and Joseba Beloki, and American Tyler Hamilton, racing despite breaking his collarbone in a crash on the Tour's second day.

Ullrich, coming back from a doping ban and knee operations, looks particularly strong. He trails Armstrong by 38 seconds overall. Beloki, the 2002 runner-up, is 32 seconds behind.

''Ullrich is a big motor: He has won here and competed several times,'' Muller said. ''If his knee is holding up then he is one of the main threats, no question.''

A key day comes Sunday, with the 8,728-foot Galibier pass.

''Lance said today was very hard, but we're not worried about the position at the moment. The real test for us is tomorrow, with the Col du Galibier,'' Muller said. ''He's very confident about it.''

At 142.9 miles, with three passes over 3,300 feet, Saturday's leg from Lyon and temperatures in the 80s proved too much for seven riders who dropped out. They included Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, the sprint sensation of this Tour, who won four of six relatively flat early stages.

''It was a bit of a shock to hit the mountains for the first time,'' said Armstrong's teammate, George Hincapie, who finished 93rd. ''Overall the team did pretty OK.''

Tens of thousands of fans lined the route through alpine foothills and passes, turning the stage into a daylong celebration of cycling.

Fans spray-painted slogans such as ''Allez Armstrong!'' on the road. Families picnicked facing snow-capped peaks. Villages had barbecues and parties before the racers zoomed past.

Virenque broke away with a small group of riders early in the stage and held on, powering over peaks. He raised his arms in victory as he crossed the line at Morzine. Last year, he won the climb up Mont Ventoux, marking his comeback from a doping ban.

Virenque was a member of the Festina team that was kicked out of the 1998 Tour after customs officers found banned drugs in a team car. In the trial that followed, Virenque testified about systematic drug abuse within his team and cycling in general.

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

Virenque long has been known as a climber, taking the King of the Mountains title at five previous Tours. He has six career stage victories in the event.

But given Armstrong's strength, Virenque doesn't expect to keep the overall lead to the finish in Paris on July 27.

''I used up a lot of watts today. I'm sure I'll pay it for it,'' the Frenchman said. ''If I keep the yellow jersey for another one or two days, it will be a bonus.

"I can finish my career now without regrets.''



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