Work in Sports
The plot thickens
Virenque wins Stage 16; Armstrong's lead shrinks to 5:37
MORZINE, France (AP) -- Lance Armstrong struggled for the first time on the 2000 Tour de France Tuesday but rode to the limit to hold a lead that should see him retain his title.
The 28-year-old Texan staggered over the line in eighth place, 2:01 behind winner Richard Virenque and 1:37 behind Jan Ullrich, his only realistic challenger for the title, who came in second on the day.
"Today was the hardest day of my life on a bike," an exhausted Armstrong said after the 16th leg of the Tour.
Armstrong's lead was cut from 7:26 to 5:37, but with all five of the decisive mountain stages over, he should have few problems retaining the yellow jersey to the end.
He is grateful for the advantage after struggling up Col de Joux-Plane, the final mountain of the leg and the three-week competition.
"I had a problem on the last climb. I had no energy left," he said. "I am lucky that this race goes on for three weeks and that I had a lead of seven and a half minutes."
Armstrong, who won last year's Tour after battling back from cancer, later said he hadn't eaten properly before the race and was especially lacking sugar.
Adding spice to the last mountain stage was Monday's public row between Marco Pantani, a two-time stage winner this year, and Armstrong.
Armstrong accused the Italian of lacking class after Pantani told journalists that the Texan's decision to back off in the final yards and let him win the Mont Ventoux stage last week was an insult.
On Tuesday, there was no verbal skirmishing but the spat may have given both riders extra motivation.
Pantani built up an early lead but was the first to drop off at the start of the final ascent up the Col de Joux-Plane. As the Italian faltered, Armstrong, who said he would be thinking about the row during the race, sprinted past.
Ullrich, Virenque and Roberto Heras went wheel-to-wheel with Armstrong and it was Kelme's Spanish rider who had the strongest legs, opening up a 39-second gap over Armstrong with 20 kilometers (12 miles) to go.
Suddenly, the strength seemed to drain out of Armstrong.
At the peak, he was 1:30 behind Ullrich and more than two minutes behind leaders Virenque and Heras.
That opened the way for a thrilling battle for the line between Virenque, France's most popular rider, and Heras.
Virenque, who has won the Tour's King of the Mountain prize in four of the last five years, showed his superb descending skills while Heras lost control two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the end and crashed into barriers going around a bend in the narrow streets of Morzine.
Heras got on a new bike to finish third, but Ullrich nipped through to take second place.
Virenque, whose last Tour stage win was at Courchevel in 1997, finished the 196-kilometer (122-mile) route from Courchevel to Morzine in five hours, 32 minutes, 20 seconds.
The 29-year-old Polti rider crossed the line unchallenged to the acclaim of French fans.
"It was a great moment for me personally and it brings me a lot of happiness. It is a shame that Heras fell because he deserved to have a chance at the end," Virenque said. "The course today suited me and I never felt that I was lacking anything."
Virenque joined Polti after being fired by Festina in the wake of the 1998 Tour doping scandal.
Festina was thrown off the Tour but Virenque was one of only two riders that denied ever knowingly taking banned substances.
He still faces a court trial in Lille in October but said he is thinking of nothing but a podium spot at this year's race.
"All the difficult moments are forgotten when you have great moments like today," he said. "Mentally I was strong."
The 16th stage marked a return to the mountains after Monday's second and final rest day.
The course included two Category 1 climbs and one Category 2 ascent before the toughest task of all: the 1,700-meter (5,610-foot) Col de Joux-Plane.
The route passed near the spectacular cable cars that run to the 3,200-meter (10,560-foot) summit of Carron from Val-Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe.
Between the narrow winding mountain passes, which made for energy-sapping climbs and potentially dangerous descents, riders passed through scenic villages and the town of Albertville, site of the 1992 Winter Olympics.
The three-week race, which ends July 23 in Paris, continues Wednesday with a hilly 155-kilometer (93-mile) course from Evian-les-Bains to Lausanne in Switzerland.
There will be fewer cars on the route following the accident that resulted in the death of a 12-year-old boy last week.
Organizers reduced the number of press, organizational and sponsor cars on Tuesday and said that in the future the number of vehicles will be cut from about 1,000 to 500.
At the start of the 16th leg, riders stopped and observed a minute of silence as a mark of respect for the boy.