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Stage 9

Armstrong turns the screw in first Tour mountain stage

By Francois Thomazeau

Stage 9 Winner
SESTRIERE, ITALY, 13 JUL 99 - Lance Armstrong of the USA celebrates as he wins the first mountains stage of the Tour de France cycling race from Le Grand Bornand in France to Sestriere in Italy (213.5 km) July 13. Lance Armstrong is first placed in the overall standings. jna/Photo by Jacky Naegelen REUTERS 

SESTRIERE, Italy, July 13  - American Lance Armstrong delivered a potentially fatal blow to his rivals in the Tour de France on Tuesday, brilliantly winning the first mountain stage in Sestriere to open up a huge lead overall.

Armstrong raced away on his own in the final climb to the ski resort of Sestriere to win the 213.5-km ninth stage from Le Grand Bornand in France by 31 seconds from Swiss Alex Zuelle.

It was his third stage win in the race and put him way out in front with a serious option of eventual victory provided he holds up physically in the other mountain stages in the coming week.

Overall, he now leads Spain's Abraham Olano by six minutes and three seconds with Frenchman Christophe Moreau third, seven minutes 44 seconds behind.

Armstrong had been impressive in winning Sunday's crucial 56.5-km time trial in Metz ahead of Zuelle.

But many, including the American himself, wondered how strong the U.S. Postal leader would be in the first alpine passes of the Tour.

His attack 10 kms from the finish on the climb to Sestriere, when he caught and broke away from natural climbers like Italian Ivan Gotti and Spaniard Fernando Escartin was a formidable answer.

The 27-year-old Texan so outclassed what was left of the bunch in the final climb that he reminded fans of former cycling greats such as Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain or compatriot Greg LeMond -- the only American to have won the Tour.

His victory in just under six hours was the first by an American in a mountain stage in the Tour since Andrew Hampsten won in l'Alpe d'Huez in 1992. The riders will return to l'Alpe d'Huez at the end of the 220.5-kms 10th stage on Wednesday.

It was the Tour's fourth stage finish in Sestriere. Previous winners were Fausto Coppi in 1952, Claudio Chiappucci in 1992 and Dane Bjarne Riis in 1996 with both Coppi and Riis going on to win the Tour.

Earlier in the day, the climbing specialists seemed to be getting the better of all-rounders such as Armstrong on the first big passes of the day, including the classic Telegraphe and Galibier.

Frenchman Richard Virenque, Escartin and his team mate Jose Castelblanco attacked in the Galibier, the highest point of the Tour at 2,645 metres.

But the three and Spain's Jose Luis Arrieta, who staged a solo breakaway on the Telegraphe, were caught by Armstrong and the leading chasers in the descent from the Galibier.

By then two other race favorites, Russian Pavel Tonkov and Olano, had dropped out of contention for stage victory.

With Zuelle more than seven minutes adrift in the overall standings at the start because of a bad crash early in the Tour, Armstrong had been expected to hang on in and let the main climbers have their day.

When Gotti and Escartin tried their luck at the start of the climb to Sestriere, everything seemed to suggest this would be so.

But then Armstrong made his move and left the climbers trailing bewildered in his wake.

"At the start, I was not thinking about winning the stage. I only wanted to defend my yellow jersey," the American said. "But the race dictated the strategy."

"Everybody was wondering how well I could do in the climbs. This was not a total answer. It just means my legs were strong today and I hope it will stay this way."

With five stage wins altogether in his Tour career, Armstrong has now equalled the tally of great LeMond, who finished three times a Tour winner.

The other hero of the first alpine stage was Virenque, who attacked on each of the five passes of the day to take the climbers' red polka dot jersey. The Frenchman has finished four previous Tours as King of the Mountains.

The controversial Virenque, who started the Tour at the last minute after an initial ban from the organizers following the doping scandal around his then team Festina last year, was sixth in the stage and now lies ninth overall, 10 minutes behind Armstrong.

Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini, who dominated the first week of the Tour with four stage wins, gave up after a crash. He was not seriously injured.

Tour de France ninth stage placings/overall standings 

SESTRIERE, Italy, July 13 - Leading placings in the ninth stage of the Tour de France over 213.5 kms from Le Grand Bornand on Tuesday: 
1. Lance Armstrong (U.S.) U.S. Postal five hours 57 minutes 11 seconds 
2. Alex Zuelle (Switzerland) Banesto 31 seconds behind 
3. Fernando Escartin (Spain) Kelme 1:26 
4. Ivan Gotti (Italy) Polti same time 
5. Manuel Beltran (Spain) Banesto 2:27 

6. Richard Virenque (France) Polti 
7. Carlos Contreras (Colombia) Kelme both same time 
8. Kurt van de Wouwer (Belgium) Lotto 3:10 
9. Abraham Olano (Spain) ONCE same time 
10. Laurent Dufaux (Switzerland) Saeco 3:30 

11. Daniele Nardello (Italy) Mapei 
12. Giuseppe Guerini (Italy) Telkom 
13. Angel Casero (Spain) Vitalicio Seguros all same time 
14. Benoit Salmon (France) Casino 3:43 
15. Bo Hamburger (Denmark) Cantina Tollo 3:46 

16. Mario Aerts (Belgium) Lotto 4:24 
17. Joaquim Castelblanco (Colombia) Kelme 4:34 
18. Stefano Garzelli (Italy) Mercatone Uno 4:51 
19. Roland Meier (Switzerland) Cofidis same time 
20. Christophe Moreau (France) Festina 5:04 

Leading overall standings: 

1. Armstrong 39 hours 31 minutes seven seconds 
2. Olano six minutes three seconds behind 
3. Moreau 7:44 
4. Zuelle 7:47 
5. Dufaux 8:07 

6. Nardello 8:36 
7. Casero 8:51 
8. Escartin 9:01 
9. Virenque 10:02 
10. Pavel Tonkov (Russia) Mapei 10:34 

11. Salmon 10:42 
12. Andrea Peron (Italy) ONCE 11:13 
13. Hamburger 11:30 
14. Guerini 11:39 
15. Garzelli 12:10 

16. Aerts 13:20 
17. Kevin Livingston (U.S.)  U.S. Postal 15:41 
18. Van de Wouwer 16:14 
19. Tyler Hamilton (U.S.) U.S.Postal 16:52 
20. Alvaro Galdeano (Spain) 


Julius Caesar
BORNAND, FRANCE, 13 JUL 99 - Italian cycling star Mario Cipollini waves dressed as Roman Emperor Julius Caesar as he arrives for the first mountain stage of the Tour de France cycling race from Le Grand Bornand to Sestriere in Italy July 13. Cipollini is celebrating the anniversary of Caesar's birthday. jna/Photo by Charles Platiau REUTERS

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BORNAND, FRANCE, 13 JUL 99 - Riders of the Tour de France relieve themselves at the side of the road before starting the arduous first mountain stage from Le Grand Bornand to Sestriere in Italy /Photo by Charles Platiau REUTERS