SAINT-FLOUR, France Seven seconds.
That may not seem like much, but in the Tour de France, the advantage Lance Armstrong gained over two rivals Wednesday could be an important step in the Texan's bid for a record sixth straight crown.
At a minimum, Armstrong struck a psychological blow by showing his 32-year-old legs still have enough zip after the Tour's longest stage to outshine Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras former teammates raring to dethrone him.
But Armstrong's main rival, Jan Ullrich, was able to keep up.
The German, a Tour winner in 1997 and five-time runner-up, stayed with Armstrong in a sprint to the finish of the first mountain stage. They ended up with the same time.
The glory on Bastille Day went to Frenchman Richard Virenque, who took his seventh stage victory of a spotted career with a strong solo ride, and French champion Thomas Voeckler, who retained the overall lead.
Armstrong still trails Voeckler by 9 minutes and 35 seconds. The 25-year-old Frenchman displayed his resilience by riding toward the front of main pack for much of the 147-mile trek from Limoges and by outsprinting Armstrong at the finish.
Voeckler placed fifth, Armstrong sixth and Ullrich 15th the last in a group of 14 riders who finished together 5 minutes and 19 seconds behind Virenque's mark of 6 hours and 24 seconds. Other Armstrong rivals Ivan Basso and Iban Mayo also finished in that bunch.
Armstrong's burst of speed on the uphill finish was to ensure that riders with him didn't open up a gap and gain time. In doing so, he left Hamilton and Heras trailing in a second group of 36 riders who finished seven seconds back.
If the Tour is close, that time may prove precious. The 101-year-old race's narrowest winning margin remains American Greg Lemond's defeat of Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1989. Last year, Armstrong beat Ullrich by just 61 seconds.
''Remember Fignon? He lost by eight seconds. It can be important,'' said Johan Bruyneel, sports director of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team.
Overall, Armstrong extended his advantage over Hamilton to 43 seconds and over Heras to 1 minute, 52 seconds. Ullrich remained 55 seconds behind Armstrong.
Hamilton's team manager Urs Freuler said the 33-year-old from Marblehead, Mass., was poorly positioned in the final stretch, ''which is why a few seconds were lost.''
In a preview of their expected duels to come in the harder Pyrenees and Alps, Armstrong and Ullrich led the main pack up the hardest of nine climbs Wednesday a 3.5-mile ascent of Le Puy Mary, in the Massif Central region of central France.
While the climb and the stage were the hardest so far, Bruyneel said it was too early to tell whether the Texan 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.''
Armstrong was one of five riders called for a doping test after the stage and did not talk to reporters.
Virenque's escape took the darling of French cycling fans a step closer to his goal: to become the first seven-time winner of the polka dot jersey as best climber.
Despite his involvement in a 1998 doping scandal, Morocco-born Virenque is admired for his climbing panache and was cheered on by hundreds of thousands of people lining the route. He became the 14th Frenchman since World War II to win on Bastille Day and the first since Laurent Jalabert in 2001.
A teary Virenque dedicated his win to a friend who died two days earlier and his grandmother who died in June. He said their memory drove him on.
''It's fabulous, I was at the end of my strength,'' he said. ''I had cramps everywhere.''
Virenque and Axel Merckx, the son of five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx, surged ahead of the main pack at the 22-mile mark and built a lead of more than 10 minutes.
But Virenque overtook the Belgian rider on the 5,897-foot-high Le Puy Mary. In all, he rode for 125 miles ahead of the pack and alone over the last 40 miles to the finish in Saint-Flour. He thrust his arms into the air at the line, pointing to the sky. Merckx, drained, placed 71st, 6 minutes and 18 seconds behind.
At 34, Virenque is approaching the end of a career that could see him hailed as the Tour's best-ever climber. He currently is tied with Spanish rider Federico Bahamontes and Belgian Lucien Van Impe with six mountain titles.
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