Tuesday, July 18
Armstrong, Pantani keep things interesting
 
 By Andrew Hood
ABC Sports Online

COURCHEVEL, France -- A growing feud between Lance Armstrong and arch rival Marco Pantani boiled over high in the French Alps on Monday.

Pantani has been fuming since Armstrong let the fiery Italian win the Tour's 12th stage on Thursday after the pair arrived together to the top of Mont Ventoux, one of the Tour's most revered climbs.

 
  Marco Pantani (right) did not appreciate Lance Armstrong's Stage 12 concession.

Defending Tour champion Armstrong now admits he should have won the stage.

"It was a gift at Mont Ventoux and I also feel like it was a mistake to give the gift," said Armstrong during a press conference on Monday's rest day "He's a great rider, a great champion and a great climber, but he wasn't the best man on Ventoux. Anybody who watched the race knows that.

"On the Ventoux the strongest man should win. I realize that now. At the time I was doing the right thing, the classy thing. But since then I've been disappointed by his attitude and his declarations."

Pantani and Armstrong have been swapping jabs over the past few days. Armstrong is angry that Pantani's Mercatone Uno team hasn't helped his U.S. Postal Service team work during a weekend of tough mountain stages. And Pantani has been telling the Italian press he doesn't need handouts from Armstrong.

Pantani is one of the proudest riders in the European peloton and earns victories by unleashing brutal attacks in the steepest mountain stages. The bald-headed Italian who wears a trademark bandana returned to racing just this past May after nearly a year off the bike battling doping allegations. He was kicked out of the 1999 Tour of Italy while leading on the penultimate day after failing blood tests.

Pantani came to the Tour with ambitions of winning, but Armstrong is comfortably in the lead with less than a week of racing left. Armstrong is more than seven minutes ahead of second-place Jan Ullrich, and more than nine minutes ahead of sixth-place Pantani.

At the Ventoux stage, Armstrong easily followed Pantani's attack and let him roll ahead to take the stage victory.

"At the time I thought it was the right thing to do because I like Pantani and I respect him and I know that the last 12 months for him have been tough," Armstrong said. "I thought he rode a tough race, he was dropped and came back, dropped and came back, and then attacked and that's admirable. At a time like that, you make a decision in real time. That was the decision that I made.

"I am disappointed that things have transpired the way they have in the past few days. We all make character-judgement mistakes."

Pantani, a winner of the 1998 Tour, told the Italian press he felt slighted by the gesture.

"I don't need to be given a gift from Armstrong," Pantani told Italian journalists Thursday. "The Tour is not over. If Armstrong thinks it's finished, he's mistaken. In any case he isn't finished with me. I am not satisfied until I win a stage alone."

In two mountain stages over the weekend, Pantani attacked and eventually dropped Armstrong to win Sunday's stage up a long finishing climb to Courchevel.

During Monday's press conference, Armstrong also teased Pantani by calling him "Elephantino," the little elephant, instead of Pantani's preferred nickname, "Il Pirata," the Pirate.

"I call him Elephantino, not Il Pirata because last time I checked you're not supposed to give yourself nicknames," Armstrong said. "The Italian media gave him the name Elephantino, so for me that's the official name. I can't say my name is 'Big Tex.

"Marco came here to win stages and I came here to win the Tour de France."

While Pantani has won two Tour stages this year, Armstrong hasn't won any. Last year, he electrified the Tour by winning four stages and the overall title after a dramatic comeback from cancer. This year he's been second in four stages but yet enjoys a comfortable lead in the sport's most prestigious event.

"I would be disappointed if I didn't win a stage, especially based on a certain uphill finish at Mont Ventoux," Armstrong said. "I still plan on trying to win a stage. I think Ullrich will win the final time trial because it's in his adopted hometown. That leaves (Tuesday) and I don't know if tomorrow is ideal either because the races seem very aggressive early on."

The 87th Tour continues Tuesday with the 121-mile, five-climb 16th stage from Courchevel to Morzine. It's the last climbing stage in this year's three-week, 2,250-mile Tour and the last chance for Pantani to attack Armstrong before the Tour ends Sunday in Paris.

"Elephantino has tomorrow and it's really the last day for him," Armstrong said, adding that the latest tiff doesn't give him extra motivation. " I would by lying if I said it wasn't in the back of my mind."

Notes

How they fared:
The riders in the Tour enjoyed the second rest day. How the Tour favorites finished in Sunday's stage and where they stand in the overall classification:
Lance Armstrong: Finished 4th at 50" behind winner Marco Pantani; 1st overall.
Jan Ullrich: Finished 15th at 3'21" behind Pantani; 2nd overall at 7'26"
Marco Pantani: Won the stage; 6th overall at 9'03"
Richard Virenque: Finished 10th at 2'21" behind Pantani; 7th overall at 9'57"
Laurent Jalabert: Finished 94th at 35'56" behind Pantani; 57th overall at 1h18'06"
Alex Zülle : Finished 106th at 35'56' behind Pantani; 37th overall at 57'07"
Bobby Julich: Finished 45th at 27'17" behind Pantani; 49th overall at 1h07'40"
Chann McRae: Abandoned the Tour at stage 12.
Four riders abandoned, including stage-six winner Leon Van Bon. 137 riders remain in the Tour.

Armstrong to study French
Lance Armstrong promises to learn more French.

Tour de France race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said over the weekend that Armstrong would become more popular with French fans if he spoke more French. Armstrong said he saw the comment.

"It's a bike race, not a popularity contest so I don't care," Armstrong said. "I love France and I live here and I like French people. I could try a lot harder to speak it, but unfortunately when I did try last year I was taken advantage of and I don't want to be in that position again. It's a bike race, it's not a political race. I don't care. Having said all that, I will learn more French."
 



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Insurmountable? Armstrong's lead grows at Tour

Stage Fifteen results



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 Marco Pantani powers his way to win Stage 15.
avi: 1238 k
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 Marco Pantani just edges out Lance Armstrong to win Stage 12.
avi: 2354 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Stage 16 course map
RealVideo: 28.8