Armstrong's lead climbs in mountains

He finishes 3rd in Stage 14

overall advantage at 4:21

Tour De France

July 22, 2002|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MONT VENTOUX, France - The mountain is a geological freak, an angry place that looks as if a cosmic dump truck tipped its load from the heavens and spilled out a haphazard pile of gravel.

The climb has buried cyclists, literally and figuratively. British rider Tom Simpson died ascending it during the 1967 Tour de France, and it has humbled some great athletes.

Yesterday, the "Giant of Provence" eluded Lance Armstrong's grasp again. On a habitually searing, windblown July day, once-disgraced French rider Richard Virenque rose out of the embers of a drug scandal, broke away early and built a lead too big for Armstrong to overcome.

It could hardly be termed a disappointing day for the three-time defending champion, who finished third in Stage 14, 2 minutes 20 seconds behind Virenque, but padded his overall lead to 4 minutes, 21 seconds over Joseba Beloki.

Armstrong responded to the Spanish rider's attack about five miles from the finish of the 137.3-mile stage by swerving around him and turning on the afterburners, creating the optical illusion that Beloki was moving backward like an object slipping off the roof of a moving car.

With a week remaining in the three-week race, the 30-year-old Texan appears unstoppable in his quest to become the fourth man in history to win as many as four Tours, a competitive equation he acknowledged after the stage. But his decision to allow Marco Pantani to pass him on the same summit two years ago now looms larger.

"I didn't come here to win Ventoux, I came here to win the Tour de France," Armstrong said. "I think it'll be in the Tour again before I'm done. Maybe I'll get another chance.

"I think the smart thing to do is to ride conservative now. This is not a race to win by as many seconds or minutes as possible. It's a race just to win."

Mont Ventoux's extraterrestrial appearance is created by erosion and extremes of temperature, as its limestone skullcap is constantly freezing, cracking and coming apart in the gales that buffet it.

It was blowing hard enough yesterday to make flags snap out straight near the summit, but the air didn't feel as if it was mitigating the 90-degree temperatures at the base.

Armstrong, isolated with three ONCE riders ahead of him on the last climb after his teammate Roberto Heras tired halfway up, rose to the occasion. He gained two minutes on Virenque, who rides for the Belgian Domo-Farm Frites team, in the final few miles and said he felt strong.

But Armstrong felt compelled to counter a different kind of attack - taunting comments he said he heard on the way up the mountain, accusing him of using performance-enhancing drugs.

"It's disappointing," Armstrong said. " But those are the things I have to live with. I'm not here to be friends with a bunch of people who stand on the side of the road that have had too much to drink and want to yell `dopi.' That's not the way a classy person acts."

Bonnie DeSimone is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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