Pantani Wins Tour; U.S. Rider Finishes Third
By Anne Swardson
Bicycling's most famous road race was won today by an Italian, Marco Pantani, for the first time in 33 years. Defending champion Jan Ullrich of Germany was second.
For the first time since 1990, an American also mounted the podium: Bobby Julich of Glenwood Springs, Colo., was third, 4 minutes 8 seconds behind the winner. He was the second American, after three-time winner Greg LeMond, ever to claim a prize in the Tour. He ran second for a large portion of the three-week race, until he was displaced by Ullrich.
"It's the dream of everyone in bicycling, to ride up the Champs-Elysees at the end of the Tour de France, and now it's a reality," Julich said, adding that next year he hoped to win.
Many participants and former participants in this year's 21-stage race doubtless hope that next year will be different. A doping scandal caused numerous teams and individual riders to drop out, and French law enforcement authorities are only beginning their investigation of who gave what to whom.
Today's edition of L'Equipe, the sports newspaper, said it all. Every day, the newspaper publishes the names of all riders who started the race. Those who have dropped out for any reason have a bar through their names. This morning, the page looked like a railroad track.
Gone were almost half of the 189 riders who started the race in Ireland, for the first time on June 11. Ninety-six riders crossed the finish line at the Arc de Triumphe this afternoon, and only 14 of the 21 original teams remained in the race.
In protest of police searches and interrogations, riders went on strike, ceasing to ride, three times during the three weeks, and officials had to cancel the results of one daily stage last week.
But police had reason to suspect the use of prohibited substances. Beginning on July 8, when a masseur for the Festina team was caught crossing into France in a car filled with more than 400 doping products, evidence of drug use by riders grew rapidly.
The Festina coach admitted to having supplied team members with illegal drugs to improve performance and five riders admitted they had taken them; the team was thrown out of the race July 17. The hormone EPO was most often mentioned as the performance-enhancer of choice among cyclists.
The Dutch team TVM, four Spanish teams and the Italian team Riso Scotti eventually pulled out, as well as individual riders such as Luc LeBlanc and Rodolfo Massi. Massi, of the French Casino team, later became the only rider so far to be formally placed under investigation by French authorities.
The scandals did not affect the leaders of the race, though Laurent Jalabert, top ranked in the world, pulled out along with the rest of his ONCE team July 29. And leading French rider Richard Virenque was ejected with the rest of the Festina team, though he denied any use of illegal drugs.
As is often the case, the race's likely winner was known before the peloton, or pack, crossed the Paris city line today, on the basis of the previous days' results. But the winner of today's sprint was not, and it was in doubt until the very end. The pack circled the Champs-Elysees down to the end of the Tuileries Gardens 11 times, and for four of those rounds, a member of the only American team in the race battled for the lead.
Vyacheslav Yekimov of the U.S. Postal Service team yes, the people who bring you the mail and Stephane Heulot of La Francaise des Jeux traded first and second places for more than 20 minutes. But in the final round, they both gave out and, after several surges, Tom Steels of the Mapei team and the Belgian champion, was the first across the finish line. George Hincapie, an American from U.S. Postal, was fourth after a powerful surge that almost moved him up farther.
The top sprinter was the German Erik Zabel of Deutsche Telekom. He mounted the podium with his young son, who clearly is accustomed to victory as he stepped up to claim the prize before his father.
"This is a very emotional moment for me," the elder Zabel said. Top mountain climber was Frenchman Christophe Rinero of Cofidis, which also was the top team.
Pantani, known as the "Pirate" for his shaved head and a member of the Mercatone Uno team, is the first mountain specialist to win the Tour de France since 1976. He was third last year and in 1995, and clearly takes the long view: In the 21 days of this race he managed to both grow a goatee and dye it blond.
The 28-year-old took the lead decisively from Ullrich in the Alps on July 27 in the rain and never lost it, finishing with a time of 92 hours 49 minutes 46 seconds. His victory adds to his win this year in the Giro of Italy.
"The riders all made a show today despite the rain," Pantani said.
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