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Pantani back on top as Armstrong rubs it in

Stage 12: Carpentras – Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux, France, July 13 2000: Marco Pantani hauled himself back from the brink to reclaim his position at the very highest level in the Tour de France today, winning the mystical 149 kilometre stage to the summit of Mont Ventoux in Provence, as America’s Lance Armstrong lavished more salt into the wounds of his rivals with another stupendous display of power climbing.

1998 Tour champion Pantani and present incumbent Armstrong, broke the stout resistance of 1997 winner Jan Ullrich of Germany as the heavyweights of the Tour slugged it out on the windswept slopes of the ‘Giant of Provence.’

“It was a good race for me,” a composed Armstrong said afterwards, “but there were two stories to the day. The first was the form of my team and the second was how windy the mountain was. Our goal was to control the race because I didn’t need to attack.”

On the lunar-like, barren slopes, Pantani, after a ignominious year of personal and professional strife, seized back his title as the most charismatic and thrilling rider in the world of cycling with a virtuoso display of attacking riding.

The little Italian was forced to dig deeper than perhaps he has ever had to do in his career in order to fend off the indomitable Texan:

“It was a really hard day but I had hoped to have good form, even though I’m not at 100 per cent. Winning on Ventoux is a fantastic success for a climber like me. Now I’m keen to build on this and climb up the overall classification to achieve a good finish in Paris.”

It was Pantani’s first stage win since the 1999 Giro d’Italia, the race that plunged his career into turmoil, when he was thrown off the event, two days from final victory in Milan, after failing an International Cycling Union blood test.

Today, the rider know to his fanatical tifosi supporters as ‘Il Pirata,’ was back to his mercurial best. At first, on the unforgiving gradients of Ventoux, he was dropped from the leading group containing Armstrong and Ullrich. But then dramatically, amidst a cacophony of cheers from the 300,000 spectators lining the roadside to the summit, he dragged himself back into contention, with a series of blinding attacks in the final six-kilometre ascent to the finish.

Everyone was left gasping in his wake, bar the mighty Armstrong who responded almost immediately, bridging the gap between himself and the Italian and simultaneously leaving a flailing Ullrich behind. The German was spent after clinging on tenaciously for most of the climb. As predicted by procycling’s Robert Millar, Ullrich simply didn’t have the power to get up off his saddle and respond to the sudden leap made by Armstrong and Pantani. The American confirmed this after the finish:

“I saw Ullrich suffering, so I decided to take the opportunity.”

With Ullrich incapable of reacting to Armstrong’s burst, the Texan rode up to Pantani’s shoulder. He seemed to say something to the little climber as he glided by and casually dropped his left hand from his handlebars, like a boxer dropping his gloves, encouraging Pantani to go past him. It was apparent from the body language that Armstrong wanted to form a mutually beneficial pact in order to distance the German rider. The reward for the Italian was that he was allowed to sneak past Armstrong on the line to take the stage win in recognition of his efforts. The reward for the American miracle-man? More time on his closest rivals, as if he needed it, in a race that already seems to be a foregone conclusion:

“In the wind, two riders working together are better than one, so I encouraged Pantani to work with me. Pantani was a real fighter today,” said Armstrong, “and it was important that a climber like him won on a mountain as legendary as the Ventoux. He made the successful attack, so it was only right that he won. I’ll forgo stage wins for now.”

US Postal team manager Johan Bruyneel ominously backed up Armstrong’s tactics. “We want to win the Tour in Paris,” said Bruyneel. “Stage wins are not our objective.”

Yellow jersey hero of the first week, David Millar, who had started the day in contention for the white jersey for the best young rider, was involved in an early crash, copping a nasty burn on his neck from the spinning rear wheel of Udo Bolts as he landed on the Telekom man. As a result, Millar conceded a lot of time to Francisco Mancebo of Spain, who now appears to have an unassailable lead over the Briton in the young rider classification. Fortunately, the Scot still managed to ride home safely in the main field.

Results & overall standings:

Results:

1. Marco Pantani (Ita/MER), 149 km in 4 h 15:11.
(average speed: 35.03 km/h)

2. Lance Armstrong (USA/USP) at 00:00.
3. Joseba Beloki (Spa/FES) 00:25.
4. Jan Ullrich (Ger/TEL) 00:29.
5. Santiago Botero (Col/KEL) 00:48.
6. Roberto Heras (Spa/KEL) 00:48.
7. Richard Virenque (Fra/PLT) 01:17.
8. Francisco Mancebo (Spa/BAN) 01:23.
9. Manuel Beltran (Spa/MAP) 01:29.
10. Christophe Moreau (Fra/FES) 01:31.

General Classification:

1. Lance Armstrong (USA/USP) 48 h 50:21.
2. Jan Ullrich (Ger/TEL) at 04:55.
3. Joseba Beloki (Spa/FES) 05:52.
4. Christophe Moreau (Fra/FES) 06:53.
5. Manuel Beltran (Spa/MAP) 07:25.
6. Richard Virenque (Fra/PLT) 08:28.
7. Roberto Heras (Spa/KEL) 08:33.
8. Francisco Mancebo (Spa/BAN) 09:42.
9. Javier Ochoa (Spa/KEL) 09:46.
10. Peter Luttenberger (Aust/ONC) 10:01.
11. Laurent Jalabert (Fra/ONC) 10:14.
12. Marco Pantani (Ita/MER) 10:26.
13. Alex Zuelle (Swi/BAN) 10:46.
14. Fernando Escartin (Spa/KEL) 10:58.
15. Daniele Nardello (Ita/MAP) 11:16.

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