Armstrong Still in Command of Tour

Tuesday, July 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MORZINE, France (AP) — Lance Armstrong remained in command of the Tour de France on Tuesday, finishing in eighth place in the 16th stage to hold an overall lead of 5 minutes, 37 seconds.

Richard Virenque, France's most popular rider, won his first Tour stage in three years after Roberto Heras crashed in the final 1.2 miles.

Armstrong struggled up the final Col de Joux-Plane, more than two minutes behind Virenque. He also trailed Jan Ullrich, his only real challenger for the title. The German finished second, 24 seconds behind the winner.

Virenque, who rides for Polti, finished the 122-mile route from Courchevel to Morzine in 5:32:20 after a strong climb up the final mountain of the race, which ends Sunday.

He was battling for first place with Heras when the Spanish rider crashed into barriers going around a bend.

Armstrong led by 7:26 entering the day. On Monday's second and final rest day, the 28-year-old Texan doubted he could ever match the record of five Tour triumphs held by cycling greats Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Mercx and Miguel Indurain.

``Mercxk, Indurain, Hinault and Anquetil were a lot more talented than I am,'' he said.

Armstrong, who battled back from cancer to win last year's Tour de France, also said he might not be motivated to attempt such a feat.

``I have a wonderful family that I want to spend time with,'' he said. ``All of what I do is about motivation and the love of the sport. When you pack so much in, it is not always good for longevity.

``It is crazy for me to say I will win five in a row. If I want to win five, I will have to ride six or seven because there are lots of other good riders and you can't win every year.''

Some cycling fans were skeptical about Armstrong's win in 1999 because top riders like Ullrich and Marco Pantani were absent. After outclassing both this year, no one is doubting him this time.

By winning this year's race Armstrong would join an elite band of 11 other riders — including countryman Greg LeMond — who have successfully defended titles in the race's 97-year history.

With the title almost a certainty, Armstrong has been able to reflect on his superb achievement.

``This year I don't see as a comeback but a confirmation in my fight against cancer, especially because this year everyone has been on the starting line,'' he said. ``I feel good compared to last year. I felt strong before, even in training, but I have to admit that I am little surprised by the lead.''