— In an apparent return to his former climbing prowess, Italian Marco Pantani won the steep Stage 12 of the Tour de France, finishing just inches ahead of American Lance Armstrong, who tightened his grip on the leader’s yellow jersey.
Pantani finished the 149-kilometer (93-mile) mountain stage — which finished atop a wind-swept Mont Ventoux in southern France — in four hours, 15 minutes and 11 seconds.
Armstrong was given the same finishing time as Pantani, while Joseba Beloki of Spain crossed the line in third, 25 seconds later. He was followed by German Jan Ullrich, who finished 29 seconds behind Pantani.
The stage was considered the toughest of the Tour’s 21, with a torturous climb that began at a point 1,000 feet above sea level and ascended to 6,300 feet above sea level.
Still in the Lead
Today’s result only added to Armstrong’s leading margin over Ullrich, who now lies 4:55 behind the American in second place. Beloki’s strong performance moved him up to third place, at 5:52.
The stage from Carpentras to Mont Ventoux, with its three intermediate climbs and a final, leg-breaking ascent, was widely seen as perhaps the last chance for Armstrong’s rivals to attack and weaken him.
But despite a fast pace that exhausted Armstrong’s teammates one by one, the American responded calmly to every attack until the end, when he seemed to ease up and followed the rejuvenated Pantani to the summit.
An American Winner, Again?
For many observers, this second powerful showing in the mountains has not only sewn up the Tour for Armstrong, but also confirmed his place among past Tour legends, such as Eddy Merckx of Belgium and Bernard Hinault of France, who both won the Tour five times, and three-time winner Greg LeMond.
Even the former winners themselves seem ready to welcome Armstrong to their ranks.
“Lance has won his second Tour,” Hinault said Tuesday, the day after Armstrong powered ahead of the pack in the first mountain stage to claim the yellow jersey. “What he did [in Stage 10] nobody has done for years. He dominated the stage … He let the others attack first, but took it into his own hands at the end to win a crucial coup. Nobody could follow him.”
High-Altitude Slug Fest
Today’s battle for victory didn’t start until the slopes of the Ventoux. An attack by Spaniard Roberto Heras whittled the lead group down to Armstrong, Ullrich, Pantani, Beloki, Colombian Santiago Botero, and Frenchman Richard Virenque.
With less than 10 km to the finish, a strong-looking Ullrich went to the front of the group and upped the pace, forcing Pantani to fall back, but failing to unseat Armstrong.
Pantani, however, wasn’t giving in. The Italian slowly caught up with the lead group, rested for 30 seconds at the back, then launched a blistering attack, accelerating so quickly that only Heras could immediately follow.
Ullrich responded. With strength reminiscent of his first Tour victory, the lanky German dragged himself, Armstrong, and the rest of the group back up to Pantani.
But the Italian was only waiting. He launched another attack, taking with him the nimble Botero, but no one else. Armstrong waited, then with a burst of speed, accelerated away from Ullrich and the tattered remains of the leading group, passing Botero and joining Pantani up ahead.