Pantani Overtakes Ullrich to Grab Overall Lead
By Salvatore Zanca
Monday, July 27, 1998; 5:04 p.m. EDT
LES DEUX ALPES, France The Tour de France hit fog and rain as it began its punishing climb up the Alps. And by the end of Monday's stage the race had a new leader: Marco Pantani of Italy.
He gained almost nine minutes in the overall standings on defending champion Jan Ullrich of Germany, who dropped to fourth and showed unusual signs of weakness.
Pantani was in fourth place entering the day, 3 minutes, 1 second behind Ullrich. At the end of the day, he had a lead of 3:53 over Bobby Julich of the United States, with Ullrich 5:56 behind.
"Today I had the courage to attack in the bad weather conditions,'' Pantani said. "I took the risks and held up under the pressure.''
Pantani captured the 15th stage by almost two minutes, beating Italy's Rodolfo Massi and Spain's Fernadno Escartin, who moved into third overall.
Julich came in fifth on the day, 5:43 behind Pantani. Ullrich was 25th, 8:57 behind.
"I knew Pantani was dangerous but I didn't think he could do what he did today,'' Julich said. "He made us all look silly.''
There are two more days in the Alps with an important time trial Saturday, the next-to-last day of the Tour.
In the last time trial, Ullrich gained 4:21 on Pantani. Julich had an advantage of 3:03 over Pantani.
The 118-mile stage from Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes featured four major climbs. The hills became tougher because of rain and fog. Temperatures dipped below 50 degrees after going as high as 86 on Sunday.
"I know that at 3:01 at the beginning of the day it was possible to come back today,'' Pantani said. "The standings now are important, but there is still the time trial, which is difficult for me.''
Pantani won the Tour of Italy this year and was regarded as an outside threat to Ullrich, although he was third last year to the German, more than 14 minutes behind in the final standings.
Pantani lost nearly a year of competition in 1996 after a car accident in 1995 in which he broke his leg in two places. But he came back to take third in the Tour last year. He won his second stage of this year's Tour and is sixth overall.
Ullrich, who was 22 pounds overweight earlier this year, weakened in the final climb, ending up almost nine minutes behind on the day.
Tuesday's 127-mile stage to Albertville features five more climbs, with better weather predicted.
In the drug scandal that has dominated the Tour, five cyclists now admit taking banned substances and two leaders of a Dutch team faced legal questioning.
The Tour already has been hit with sit-down strike by riders angered by the attention given the scandal. Officials for the cycling showcase reject calls to cancel the race.
"There is no question of stopping the Tour,'' Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc told the French newspaper Liberation.
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press