Pantani on verge of Tour de France title
Ullrich takes 20th stage as event limps toward finish
Posted: Wednesday September 23, 1998 05:24 PM
LE CREUSOT, France (CNN/SI) -- The only thing that could prevent Marco Pantani of Italy at this point from winning the 1998 Tour de France would be a major injury or an accident.
After the penultimate day of the tour Pantani retained the overall lead of over three minutes in the Bourgogne regions when he finished third on the day two minutes, 35 seconds behind Jan Ullrich. Pantanis is hopiing to become the first Italian in 33 years to win the tour.
Defending champion Ullrich won Saturday's 52-kilometer (32.3-mile) time trial in one hour, three minutes and 52 seconds cutting Pantani's lead but after starting the day nearly six minutes behind the Italian it would have required almost a miracle for the young German to take the lead. Ullrich lost nearly nine minutes one day to Pantani in the Alps.
One of the surprises of the tour the young American Bobby Julich solidified his hold on third place overall with a second-place finish in Saturday's 20th stage.
The 28-year-old Pantani lost nearly a year of competition in 1996 after a severe car accident late in 1995 broke his leg in two places.
But he came back to take third in the Tour last year and has taken six mountain stages in the Tour, including two this year. He lost by 14 minutes to Ullrich last year.
Pantani also won the Tour of Italy this year and became the first double winner of the two major Tours since Miguel Indurain captured the two in 1993.
The Italian now looks to the world championships in Valkenburg, Netherlands, in October.
Pantani took over the lead on the first day in the Alps during the 15th stage last Monday when he won the stage to Les Deux Alps, turning a three-minute deficit to a nearly a four-minute lead over Julich with Ullrich falling out of contention.
Ullrich had led after the 10th stage in the Pyrenees and looked like a lock for his second title until he had his off-day.
Pantani thus takes the lead into Sunday's 21st and last stage from Melun to Paris 14 kilometers (91 miles).
In the past the last day's ride would have the air of a ceremonial parade ending triumphantly on the Champs Elysees.
This year, with doping revelations, searches and charges nearly every day since the start of the Tour three weeks ago in Dublin, Ireland, the end could not come soon enough.
With only 14 of 21 teams and under 100 riders remaining, the Tour will limp into Paris. Rider protests delayed the start of the 12th stage and stopped the 17th stage twice, forcing organizers to annul it.
Seven people have been placed under formal investigation for doping-related charges -- three from the Festina team, two from TVM, a doctor from ONCE and one rider, Italian Rodolfo Massi of the Casino team.
Massi, the Tour's leading mountain climber, was the only rider to be placed under investigation -- one step short of being charged. The Festina team was expelled on July 17, a week after the Tour started, after Festina team director Bruno Roussel admitted to an organized system of providing performance-enhancing drugs.The 1999 Tour de France is scheduled to begin in Puy-du-Fou.