Armstrong Leads Tour de France

Tuesday, July 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOURDES-HAUTACAM, France (AP) — Lance Armstrong's seven-mile uphill burst accomplished more than giving the American cyclist the yellow jersey at the Tour de France.

It also served warning to his tour rivals that a superhuman effort will be needed to dislodge him from the top of the standings.

Armstrong, who came in 42 seconds behind stage winner Javier Ochoa of Spain, took a 4-minute, 14-second overall lead over Germany's Jan Ullrich, the rider the U.S. Postal Service team sees as his biggest threat.

His other rivals are even further back, and though Armstrong won't admit it, Monday's stunning performance makes him the firm favorite to become the second American after Greg Lemond to retain the biggest prize in cycling.

``It is a long race. It is three weeks, and this is only the first day in the mountains,'' Armstrong said. ``It is a hard Tour de France this year. I suffered last year and know not to count on anything.

``Form is a funny thing. It comes slowly, but can go away quickly. The candle can burn out quickly, especially in this weather.''

Armstrong, who came back from cancer to win last year's tour, was in stunning form in atrocious weather on Monday.

The U.S. Postal Service rider from Austin, Texas, used a dramatic attack in the final climb up the 1,500-meter peak at Lourdes-Hautacam to finish second in the day's stage, a 127-mile trek from Dax that was the first mountain portion of the race and 10th of 21 stages overall.

In rain and cold, Armstrong — who started the day in 16th place — stormed past challengers with ease.

``Armstrong came through like a plane at the end,'' Frenchman Richard Virenque said. ``He is definitely the man to beat,''

The 28-year-old Texan, who said before the tour began that the race really started with the mountains on July 10, goes into Tuesday's hilly 135-mile stage from Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Revel full of confidence.

``Today was about good tactics,'' Armstrong said. ``It was a good day for me. I like these conditions.''

Armstrong said Ochoa deserved the stage victory, but he was delighted with his own performance.

``Ochoa rode hard and led for so long. Probably 99 percent of the people there were Spaniards cheering him,'' he said.

Armstrong's powerful late surge took him past 1998 winner Marco Pantani, 1999 third-place finisher Fernando Escartin and Virenque, and was reminiscent of his blistering form a year ago.

One of four riders to break away from the pack in the first half of the race, Ochoa won the stage in 6:09:32, after starting the day in 122nd place, 13:01 behind the leader.

Armstrong was looking forward to the stage, saying all along that he can dominate other top riders in the mountains, where the tour usually is won or lost. Good climbers can make up dozens of minutes in the overall standings.

While Ochoa looked exhausted at the end, Armstrong was virtually sprinting in the final miles. But about two-thirds of the way through the stage, he had problems.

Led by strong climbers Kevin Livingston and Tyler Hamilton, U.S. Postal led a charge from the pack approaching Col D'Aubisque, 37 miles from the finish.

The strategy initially worked, with Armstrong moving away from his main rivals, but Livingston and Hamilton couldn't keep up the pace, leaving Armstrong isolated.

About 8 miles from the finish, Armstrong was more then 10 minutes behind the leader, in a group with Pantani, Alex Zulle and Ullrich.

Pantani attacked, followed easily by Armstrong, but Zulle and Ullrich struggled to keep up. Armstrong suddenly accelerated, surging past Pantani and going after another group ahead of him, which included Virenque.

Armstrong overtook Virenque and clearly had plenty of energy left, falling short of only Ochoa before the finish line.

``Everyone was waiting for Pantani to attack,'' Armstrong said. ``When he attacked, Zulle and myself responded and the race really started.

``I was on my own without any teammates. My only choice was to wait. I was waiting for the attack from Pantani; sure enough, he did attack, and that is what started the finale.''

Alberto Elli, who started the day in first place for the Deutsche Telekom team, was 99th in the stage, 31:59 behind, and dropped to 56th overall, 25:35 behind Armstrong.