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  Pantani on Verge of Victory in Tour

By Salvatore Zanca
Associated Press Writer
Saturday, August 1, 1998; 1:50 p.m. EDT

LE CREUSOT, France – Marco Pantani was on the verge Saturday of becoming the first Italian in 33 years to win the Tour de France, a race that will be remembered more for its drug scandals.

"I'm very happy because all the bad times I have are now ended with the double of the Giro and the Tour de France," said Pantani, who broke a leg in two places in a car accident in 1995.

When the Tour ends Sunday, Pantani should become the first winner of the French and Italian races since Miguel Indurain of Spain in 1993.

"But my first victory in the Tour de France was most difficult because of all the doping stories and the police," Pantani said in anticipation of his triumph.

Pantani held a lead of 3 minutes, 21 seconds, after Saturday's 20th stage, virtually assuring him the title.

Defending champion Jan Ullrich won Saturday's 32.3-mile time trial in 1:03:52. But he was nearly six minutes behind entering the stage.

"Pantani is a great champion and he deserves this win a lot," Ullrich said. "But I will return next year to win again."

Barring injury or accident, Pantani will wear the winner's yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees Sunday, becoming the first Italian winner since Felice Gimondi in 1965.

After his auto accident, Pantani came back to take third in the Tour last year and has won six mountain stages.

Next up for him is the world championships at Valkenburg, Netherlands, in October.

American Bobby Julich, second at the start of Saturday's stage, dropped to third, behind Ullrich. He had a 14-second margin over the German starting the day.

Nevertheless, Julich was happy over his finish, 4:08 behind Pantani.

"It will be nice to be on the podium with Marco and Jan," Julich said. "I just hope to make it even better next year."

He thinks he can.

"I won't stop until I either win the Tour de France or am too old to ride my bike," Julich said. "I have a few more steps to go."

He finished 17th last year in his first Tour.

Pantani took the lead on the first day in the Alps, winning the 15th stage last Monday. He turned a three-minute deficit into a near four-minute lead over Julich, with Ullrich falling out of contention.

Sunday's final stage is 91 miles, from Melun to Paris. 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, the end could not come soon enough.

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 was the only rider to be placed under investigation – one step short of being charged. The Festina team was expelled a week after the Tour started, after team director Bruno Roussel admitted to an organized system of providing performance-enhancing drugs to the team.

Six other teams dropped out in protest over police tactics and treatment during the Tour.

On Monday, TVM team riders are to be questioned by judicial police in Reims in the ongoing doping investigation.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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