French pace Bastille Day leg

With tough mountains looming, Armstrong, other big-name riders finish fast

Tour De France

July 15, 2004|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAINT-FLOUR, France - The racing yesterday belonged to the French, which seemed fair because it was Bastille Day, a national holiday.

Richard Virenque, 34, a rider brought down by the Tour de France's worst doping scandal in 1998 but who rose again because of his fierce love of climbing the mountains, led much of the way to earn the first mountain-stage victory.

And a young native, Thomas Voeckler, made a determined sprint at the end of the 147.27-mile leg, this year's longest, to hold on to the Tour's yellow jersey. For another day, Voeckler, 25, is still the overall leader.

Texan Lance Armstrong, aiming for an unprecedented sixth consecutive Tour title, looked frisky as he finished sixth in the stage and remained sixth overall, 9 minutes, 35 seconds behind Voeckler.

In the final few kilometers, 14 riders - among them Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, the 1997 winner and five-time runner-up, Voeckler, Spaniard Iban Mayo and Italian Ivan Basso - separated themselves from the field.

Armstrong was smiling at the finish. Before the start yesterday, he said he didn't expect major moves from the top riders until tomorrow and Saturday's mountain stages.

Armstrong leads Hamilton by 47 seconds and Ullrich by 55.

While Virenque wept at the finish, pointing skyward to honor his grandmother, who had died two days earlier, there was another broken heart in the peloton.

American Tyler Hamilton lost 11 seconds to Armstrong, his former teammate and current rival.

But Hamilton's labored riding and lowered head had more to do with sorrow than exhaustion.

"My best friend, my dog - I've had him for nine years - he has cancer really bad, and we have to put him down to rest," Hamilton said of his golden retriever, Tugboat, 9, after he finished the 10th stage. "For me, he was like a child. I've had many great years with him."

Hamilton's wife, Haven, brought Tugboat to the Tour a year ago after Hamilton broke a collarbone in a race fall, and the dog became almost as famous as the rider.

Haven brought Tugboat to Limoges, where yesterday's stage began, so Hamilton could say his goodbyes before the dog was euthanized.

For the other racers, it was a day of glorious weather and tortured riding.

After a week and a half of mostly flat stages, the path through the Massif Central area included nine climbs and very little flat territory. The sun was shining and the holiday crowds packed the roadsides and leaned in close to the riders.

Virenque, who rides for the Belgian team Quick Step-Davitamon, is trying to become the only man to be crowned King of the Mountains for a seventh time and wear the polka dot jersey awarded the cyclist with most points on all the climbs.

Besides winning in 6:24, Virenque also finished first on all nine climbs.

"It's fabulous, especially on July 14," Virenque said as he began crying. "Two close persons to me have departed, and they both kept me going toward the end."

He was referring to his grandmother and also to Joel Chabiron, the mechanic for Festina, the team disgraced by the 1998 drug scandal.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Tour at a glance

Yesterday: A 147.27-mile leg - the longest stage of the Tour - from Limoges to Saint-Flour.

Winner: Richard Virenque, France, Quick Step-Davitamon, in 6 hours, 24 seconds.

How others fared: Lance Armstrong, United States, U.S. Postal-Berry Floor, was sixth, 5 minutes, 19 seconds behind. Jan Ullrich, Germany, T-Mobile Team, was 15th.

Yellow jersey: Again, French cyclist Thomas Voeckler of Brioches la Boulangere.

Today: Stage 11, Saint-Flour to Figeac, 101.91 miles.

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