Armstrong regrets allowing Pantani to win stage Thursday

Leader's action called insulting by '98 champ

Tour De France


COURCHEVEL, France - An unsuspected feud between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani burst into public view yesterday as the American leader of the Tour de France angrily criticized the Italian star climber.

Speaking at a news conference on the second of two days off during the race, Armstrong used a mocking nickname for Pantani, said he was disappointed in the 1998 Tour de France champion and added that he had made an error in allowing the Italian to win a stage Thursday on Mont Ventoux.

Far ahead of chasers Thursday, the two neared the finish line and Armstrong slowed enough to let Pantani finish first.

Observers called the move the gracious act of a champion, but Pantani thought otherwise. In little-noticed comments - except, obviously, in the camp of the U.S. Postal Service team - in the French sports newspaper l'Equipe, Pantani said: "When Armstrong said faster, faster to get me to accelerate, he was trying to provoke me.

"If Armstrong thinks the Tour is over, he's wrong. In any case, he hasn't finished with me."

The Italian won another climb Sunday and then told the news media from his country that he felt insulted by Armstrong's action on the Ventoux. "Pantani does not need Armstrong to give him a victory," he said, speaking of himself in the third person.

Asked about this at his news conference, Armstrong said: "Elefantino, it's unfortunate he's showing his true colors."

Elefantino, or Dumbo, is a nickname Pantani carried for years because of his big ears. He now prefers to be called Il Pirata, the Pirate.

"I like Marco and have a lot of respect for him," Armstrong said. "I felt like it was a gift on the Ventoux, and I also feel like it was a mistake to give the gift. On the Ventoux, the strongest man should win. I know that now.

"He's a great rider, a great champion and a great climber, but he wasn't the best man on the Ventoux. In the last few days, his actions, his words are very disappointing to me. I thought he had more class than that."

Armstrong, the overall leader who is 9 minutes, 3 seconds ahead of the sixth-placed Pantani, was asked what he thought of the Italian's chances before the Tour ends in Paris on Sunday.

"Elefantino has tomorrow," Armstrong said, referring to the last of three days in the Alps. "It's probably the last day for him."

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