Armstrong Primed for Tour Victory

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FREIBURG, Germany (AP) — Defending champion Lance Armstrong finished back in the pack Thursday but easily kept the overall lead with three days remaining in the Tour de France.

Italy's Salvatore Commesso won the 18th stage, fending off Alexander Vinokourov of Germany's Deutsche Telekom. France's Jacky Durand of Lotto came in third.

Armstrong rode steadily with a large pack of racers as the cyclists crossed Switzerland under sunny skies into the lush green hills of Germany's Black Forest region, where many of the tens of thousands of fans held up Deutsche Telekom flags.

Armstrong kept his lead of 5 minutes, 37 seconds over his closest competitor, Germany's Jan Ullrich of Deutsche Telekom.

Commesso and Vinokourov battled for the last 12 miles, with Commesso outlasting the rider from Kazakstan for his second stage victory in the past two years. Commesso was visibly moved by his victory, blowing ecstatic kisses to the crowd.

The 155 miles from Lausanne, Switzerland, to Freiburg was the longest stage on this year's Tour. On Friday, the riders face a 36-mile time trial from Freiburg to Mulhouse, France, before preparing to head to Paris, where the race ends on Sunday.

On Wednesday, Armstrong had a comfortable ride on the 17th stage, moving closer to retaining his champion's crown. He finished 35th, clocking the same time as stage winner Erik Dekker of the Netherlands. Jan Ullrich, the only rider with a remote chance of catching Armstrong, had the same time and finished 29th.

In the Tour de France, cyclists crossing the end line of a stage in a group are all given the same finishing time, although the order of crossing is noted.

After Wednesday's race, Ullrich had conceded that if Armstrong keeps up his current form, he will be hard to beat.

``It's almost inconceivable that Lance Armstrong will lose,'' Ullrich said. ``He is very strong. I of course will compete as hard as I can, but realistically, the battle is for who comes second.''