They are coming after Lance Armstrong, high in the Pyrenees.

He lost more than a minute of his overall lead in the Tour de France today when Spaniard Fernando Escartin captured the 15th stage as the race dipped into Spain.

Armstrong remains in command of cycling's premier race but he grew weary in the last two miles of the mountainous stage.

"I tried to control things," he said. "Tomorrow will be another tough and long day . . . but I'm always optimistic."

The 27-year-old Texan finished fourth, his lead cut to 6 minutes 19 seconds. The course featured six punishing climbs, and he said he found it "very, very tough."

If Armstrong can protect his lead Wednesday on the last day in the mountains, he will have taken yet another huge step toward winning the Tour. He then faces two flat stages, a time trial and the arrival in Paris on Sunday.

This was the spot in the race Escartin had been pointing to all along, close to his parents' home. With his father cheering him on, he moved from fifth to second in the standings. Still, he doubts he can beat Armstrong.

"Armstrong is a very tough rival because he has such a strong lead," Escartin said.

But he said Wednesday's second and final day in the mountains might not suit him--especially the final 38 miles on the flat stretch, where the race could turn into a mass sprint.

Armstrong remains disturbed by suggestions in the French press that his success may be tied to drug use.

The talk continued today when Le Monde said small traces of certain anti-inflammatory drugs were found in Armstrong's urine, as well as that of other riders. Corticosteroids are banned except when used for legitimate medical purposes.

The newspaper said the traces in Armstrong's sample were too small to be classified as positive.

"That's news to me," Armstrong said in an interview. "I haven't heard that. They haven't told me. This is the first I know of this."

He said again that he has not taken medication for several years, since his cancer treatment in 1996.

Escartin, knowing he needed to attack Armstrong, broke early and kept his lead most of the race. In second, two minutes behind, was Switzerland's Alex Zulle. Frenchman Richard Virenque was third.

Going into the stage, Zulle had been 7:47 behind Armstrong. But he also made up ground, and is 7:26 off the lead. Spaniard Abraham Olano dropped from second to eighth place.

Armstrong battled Zulle and Virenque late in the race. With less than six miles left, Armstrong saw Zulle faltering on a hairpin turn and powered away. But about three miles later, Zulle and Virenque got back into the race, passing Armstrong in the final approach.

The 108-mile stage between Saint Gaudens and Piau-Engaly allowed Escartin to soak up applause in Spain. He had finished second in the Tour of Spain in 1997 and 1998, and was fifth in the 1997 Tour de France. Now he finally has his first major stage victory.

"I'm very happy," he said.

CAPTION: Lance Armstrong finished fourth in the 15th stage, losing more than a minute of his edge, but still leads the Tour field by 6 minutes 19 seconds.

CAPTION: The mountainous 15th stage was won by Spaniard Fernando Escartin, whose father watched as Tour de France raced near Spanish border.