Armstrong Leads Tour de France

Monday, July 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOURDES-HAUTACAM, France (AP) — This was where Lance Armstrong wanted to be, in the mountains and in striking distance of the lead in the Tour de France.

He didn't waste the chance.

Armstrong surged through the Pyrenees and into first place Monday, grabbing the leader's yellow jersey for the first time in defense of the title he won last year after coming back from cancer.

The U.S. Postal Service team rider from Austin, Texas, used a dramatic attack in the final climb to finish second in the day's stage, a 127-mile trek from Lax that was the first mountain portion of the race and 10th of 21 stages overall.

In rain and cold, Armstrong — starting the day in 16th place — stormed past challengers, turning a deficit of almost six minutes into a lead of 4:14 over second-place Jan Ullrich, the 1997 champion.

``Armstrong came through like a plane at the end,'' Frenchman Richard Virenque said.

Spain's Javier Ochoa emerged from the clouds, shrouded in steam, to hold off Armstrong by 42 seconds. But the 28-year-old Texan, who said before the Tour began that the race really started with the mountains on July 10, was the big winner for the day.

``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.

Although the other main contenders were well back, Armstrong wasn't looking too far ahead.

``With two weeks to go, the Tour de France is still anybody's race,'' he said. ``The Tour de France is very tough this year, so I am not counting on anything.''

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.

It also made him the overwhelming favorite to retain the title. Armstrong took the lead last year in the eighth stage, a time trial, and never let it go as the Tour wound through the mountains and finished on the Champs-Elysees

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 and lost as good climbers 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.

Up ahead, in the second-place pack, Virenque and Escartin battled, and the vital moment of the day — and perhaps the whole Tour — came about eight miles from the end.

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 the group ahead of him, which included Virenque.

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

The race continues Tuesday with a hilly 135-mile stage from Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Revel.