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Stage 15

Frankie's Diary: A nervous day in the mountains 

                   This report filed July 20, 1999

                   By Frankie Andreu
                   U.S. Postal Service rider

                   Well, it was the same ol' stuff again today.  Guys attacked, we rode, they stayed away.  You are probably thinking, "but wasn't it a mountain day?" You are right, I'm only kidding.  Actually today saw a shake up in the overall standings. 

                   Today we had seven mountains to command and conquer. While the leaders were in "all wheel drive" today, Olano was in "park", Tonkov was in "park", and Vinokourov was in "reverse."  Vinokourov is the one we are the maddest at.  He's been attacking everyday at every chance he got and we would always chase him down thinking he was dangerous. Now I know he was attacking just for something to do and not for the overall. 

                   This morning it was obvious the peloton was very nervous. In the neutral section guys were trying to stay in the front and while we went slow it was a battle to keep position. No one was talking or joking around like we would on some of the other days. 

                   The first climb we went easy over. Pascal did a little tempo but mostly sat on the front row making a wall across the road with the other riders. On the second climb the attacks started. Guys would attack, get caught, and immediately get dropped. I don't know what they were thinking or doing. 

                   Christian was in charge of setting tempo on the second climb. Boy, did he have some climbing legs today. Sitting on his wheel I was uncomfortable and when the attacks started coming around us I only went 400 meters before I pulled off and let Kevin do the work. I got on the back of the group and made it over with the first 50 guys. Tyler was also in the back getting his diesel engine warmed up. 

                   On the third climb Banesto went to the front trying to break up the group. I sat on the  Banesto guy while he did tempo and again the attacks started to fly. This time my legs had come around and I took over, pulling to the top and controlling the attacks. A small group of seven had escaped earlier in the day, with no one dangerous, and with four more climbs coming they would for sure be spit out the back later on. 

                   I started the third to last climb in the front with Tyler, Kevin, and Lance on my wheel. The group was now only 40 guys. I rode on the front till they started attacking -- again. After bringing back a couple of attacks I decided to let the real climbers take over. Tyler and Kevin took turns riding tempo and controlling the rest of the climb. This climb, for some reason, was a sauna. It was much hotter than all the rest of the climbs and guys were getting shelled quickly. This is where Olano and Tonkov and many others decided to change gears and get spit out the back. 

                   At the same time Escartin changed gears and went off the front. The second to last climb Lance attacked four kilometers from the top with Zulle. Escartin had a two minute gap and it was growing because the guys with Lance were not racing, just waiting. At the bottom of the last climb Lance was caught. Going up the last climb Lance was comfortable, but he called up the car with five kilometers to go. He needed an Extran, he was bonking. 

                   He lost some time at the top in the last couple hundred meters. This was more from running out of energy than running out of legs. It was a very difficult day to eat because of the constant climbing and descending. I used a liquid diet to get through the day, no solid food at all. 

                   Escartin won a little over two minutes in front of Lance's chase group, and moved him into second on the G.C. Tomorrow is the last mountain day and for us our last main obstacle before we pull this Tour thing off. I will admit I was nervous this morning because it was such a hard stage and I'm sure it will be the same tomorrow. 

                   The gruppetto was a big one today. Many riders are tired and the first chance they get to sit up they do. Christian was making deals all day in the last group. Guys were so hot and desperate for water they were begging Christian for water and they promised to buy him a beer in Paris.  He has a about a case of beer waiting for him at the finish. Prudencio Indurain, while riding in the group, spotted a two-liter bottle of Orangina sitting on a picnic table. When he spotted it he yelled out, "who wants some Orangina?" Of course everyone wanted some, so Prudencio in one swoop swung over into the gravel and grabbed it off the picnic table. It was a party. 

                   After the race Lance got a helicopter ride off the mountain top finish. The rest of us were waiting in the camper for our soigneurs to return so we could drive down the mountain. We were the last team to get off that mountain. It took forever. Luckily, we had a police escort and we made up most of the time that we lost sitting up there doing nothing. 

                   How many Yellow Jersey's do you get in a day?  You receive a short sleeve jersey and a long sleeve jersey each morning. After the race you receive a clean new s/s jersey for the podium presentation. Maybe sometimes you have seen the Yellow Jersey that is presented and fastened in the back. This jersey is awarded if it's going over your team jersey. It fastens in the back with velcro so you don't have to try and pull it over your head and look like a fool when it gets stuck. 

Escartin takes his first Tour stage; Armstrong holds lead 

                   This report filed July 20, 1999

                   By Charles Pelkey
                   VeloNews technical editor

                   Kelme’s Fernando Escartin earned his first Tour de France stage win in grand style today as he soloed into the Pyrenean ski area of Piau Engaly this afternoon. Today’s win pushed the 31-year-old Spaniard into second place in this Tour’s overall standings, bumping Abraham Olano back to eighth place and chipping away slightly -- very slightly -- at Lance Armstrong’s hold on the yellow jersey. While Armstrong’s hold on the Tour’s lead seems solid, the speculation about the young Texan’s performance continues unabated in the French press. Finishing today’s stage, the U.S. Postal Service team leader found himself fielding questions about an unsubstantiated report in the French journal Le Monde that laboratory tests had revealed trace amounts of corticoids in samples provided for doping controls earlier in the Tour. 

                   This could arguably be rated the hardest stage in this year’s Tour de France. With no less than five Category 1 climbs – and an early Cat. 2  to set the mood – the 173 kilometers from St. Gaudens to Piau- Engaly were riddled with opportunities for hopeful attackers to make their mark on the Tour, or make a charge at the yellow jersey. Of course, defending the yellow jersey, the U.S. Postal Service squad came into today’s stage with that in mind. 

                   "Probably from the start," predicted Tyler Hamilton when asked about the day’s first expected attacks. "This is probably the best day for anyone to try." 

                   And try they did, not quite from the gun, but after the peloton cleared the Cat. 2 Col des Ares and began to roll toward the Cat. 1 Col de Mente, a group of 12 formed at the front, a move triggered by the efforts of Kelme’s Javier Otxoa. Even as the lead group formed, some of its members began to fall off the back. Indeed, Cantina Tollo’s Bo Hamburger – who has been having back pains -- lost contact with the leaders, drifted back through the peloton, and abandoned the Tour entirely as the ascent up the Col de Mente began. 

                   When the lead group reached the summit, and headed toward Spanish territory, the lead group of seven -- Otxoa and his Kelme teammate Jose Javier Gomez , Andrea Peron (ONCE), Kurt Van de Wouver (Lotto), Alvaro Gonzalez Galdeano (Vitalicio), Alberto Elli (Telekom) and Jon Odriozola (Banesto) – forged a lead of around one minute. Worrisome, this group, but not a serious threat, as its highest placed member was 15th-placed Peron at 13:32. 

                   Behind the lead group, serious attacks came from Polti’s Richard Virenque, Saeco-Cannondale’s Laurent Dufaux, and Mapei’s Pavel Tonkov and Gianni Faresin. The Postal Service worked hard – sending George Hincapie, Kevin Livingston, Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde and Pascal Derame to the front --  both to chase and to ensure that no major threats emerged to challenge Armstrong’s hold on the lead. 

                   Up and over the Col de Portillon, the Postal riders maintained control of the peloton, while the leaders built their advantage to three minutes as they approached the day’s third Cat. 1 climb, the Col du Peyresourde. But on the approach to the climb, nine riders, including Escartin and Dufaux attacked and eventually bridged up, just as the lead itself began to disintegrate. Escartin and others weren’t content to ride with this group to a possible stage win – and a more likely last-second absorption – and continued to accelerate. 

                   By the base of the day’s penultimate climb – the Col de Val Louron-Azet – only Dufaux, Vitalicio’s Francisco Garcia and Escartin remained. And Escartin was primed for the win. 

                   "I have, since knowing about this stage, wanted this win… this win in particular," Escartin later recounted. "I have been here twice to ride the course and as a final gesture placed a cross on the pages of the (official Tour de France) route book for this stage." 

                   Whatever he did, it paid off. Escartin made a final charge and suddenly he was alone. Behind him Dufaux and Garcia drifted back to a chase group powered by a motivated Hamilton. 

                   "When you have a guy like Lance Armstrong in the yellow jersey on your wheel it’s inspiring," Hamilton later said. 

                   The pursuit was powerful enough to drop Olano, but not enough to make time on Escartin --- a man often frustrated by strong performances that never quite turned into stage wins at the world’s major Tours. Indeed, Escartin’s frustration was at its worst last year when Kelme joined other Spanish teams in leaving the Tour de France in protest of harsh police practices during the scandal-plagued ’98 event. At the time of his departure, Escartin was in fourth place overall and still had a chance at grabbing a podium spot. 

                   Alone he rode, up over the Col de Val Louron-Azet and on to the final climb to Piau Engaly, still with a healthy lead over the chase group now powered by Zulle and Armstrong.  Virenque began to fade and fell off the chase group’s pace… almost losing contact before digging down deep and making a final surge to rejoin the Armstrong group ahead. 

                   Covering the final kilometers, Escartin still feared disaster… that he would be caught in the final meters of this difficult stage. But the Spaniard held on. 

                   "’It was the most beautiful day of all my life," he said soon after celebrating his win. "As I crossed, I thought of all the times I had been so close to victory… I thought of all of the Giros and all of the Vueltas and the times at the Tour… it is the most beautiful day." 

                   Armstrong crossed the line 2:10 behind the day’s winner and nine seconds behind Zulle and Virenque. The American had survived probably the toughest challenge to his lead in the Tour and survived it well, now with a 6:19 over Escartin in the overall standings and 7:26 over Zulle. 

                   But Armstrong had little time to savor his success today as he was soon besieged with questions regarding a report in the French  newspaper LeMond that cited unnamed laboratory sources as saying that the Postal team’s leader had shown "trace amounts" of corticoids in urine samples submitted to medical authorities during the Tour. 

                   This year marks the first time that the Union Cycliste Internationale has incorporated tests for corticoids in its anti-doping protocols. While the article acknowledged that the levels detected were below permitted levels, the allegations, if true, would challenge Armstrong’s assertion that the last time he had taken any type of medication was on December 13, 1996 as part of chemotherapy for the advanced form of testicular doctors discovered earlier that year. 

                   "This is first time I’ve heard about it," Armstrong said as reiterated his assertion that he has had no medication since 1996. 

                   The Armstrong allegation comes at the heels of he unexpected departure from the Tour of Belgian national champion Ludo Dierckxsens.  The Lampre rider was pulled from the event by his team director after it was learned that Dierckxsens had confirmed use of the corticoid Synactin. While the Belgian’s drug controls showed no levels of the drug, Dierckxsens had admitted using the drug for treatment of a knee injury without receiving the necessary clearance from the UCI. 

Escartin Proves That Attacks Do Pay Off 

After eight years of riding the Tour, Fernando Escartin finally proved that he has the strength to win a stage - and place himself in contention for a podium place in Paris - after a sensational solo victory at Piau-Engaly. The 31-year-old has finished in the top-10 in the last four Tours de France (7th in 1995, 8th in '96 & 5th in '97); but until now the Kelme leader has rarely shown the attacking gusto we saw today.

Before his team withdrew from the 1998 Tour de France, Escartin had shown some attacking intentions, but his effort today truely surpassed any previous stage-winning attempts. He began his aggressive blitz on the Col de Pyresourde, attacking along with Saeco's Laurent Dufaux at the base of the 4th climb (the 3rd of five category one Cols for the stage). At the summit he was away with a select group - including Dufaux, Kurt van de Wouwer (Lotto) & Andrea Peron (ONCE)- and took 3rd at the summit. His descending skills kept his advantage over Lance Armstrong and Alex Zulle's group strong. 

But it was on the penultimate climb - the Col de Val Louron-Azet - that his unique moment of attacking glory began. Escartin has been called a wheel-sucker in the past, thanks to his perpetual willingness to follow the lead of other climbers, but today - with the Tour passing briefly through his native Spain - perhaps providing the inspiration required he lifted his effort a notch. He had, however, another strong incentive: a podium place in Paris was within his grasp. Escartin began the day in 5th place - 8'53" off the lead of Armstrong - and today's win moves him up to 2nd overall (at 6'19", 1'07" ahead of the 3rd-placed Alex Zulle). 

Today's big loser was Abraham Olano. The ONCE leader was 2nd at the start of the day and is now 8th after finishing 18th, 7'01" behind Fernando. Olano cracked on the same climb Escartin excelled. Other big time losses were taken by Mapei's leader, Pavel Tonkov (who moved from 8th to 12th), and La Francaise des Jeux's Stephane Heulot (from 6th to 18th). 

The top 10 was always going to take a shaking today; but Lance Armstrong's continued form ensured that he wasn't the one to suffer. Alex Zulle stays in 3rd, but the Banesto leader improved his deficit to Armstrong from 7'47" to 7'26" after an inspired return on the final climb. The Swiss rider cracked after a surge by Armstrong looked certain to give the yellow jersey 2nd place for the stage, but Zulle returned to beat the American by 9 seconds with his 2nd place in the stage. The top placings are what matter most in the daily headlines, sure, but today's last place, Jay Sweet, again showed his fighting nature by riding to the finish alone (again) to ensure he maintains his place in his first Tour de France. Okay, he's the 'Lanterne Rouge' as the last rider in the race, but he continues to fight the climbs in solitude to ensure his name is on the finish-list in Paris. 

With Sweet's courage and Escartin's attacking, the 15th stage of the Tour de France continues to prove just what the sport is all about... Never give up, never accept the ordinary and sooner or later, you get your moment of glory. 

Wednesday 21 July 1999

Tour de France: Armstrong defiant as Escartin climbs into contention 
                           By Phil Liggett

                           LANCE Armstrong breathed a sigh of relief in the Tour de France yesterday when he ended the first of two Pyrenéan stages still holding on to the leader's yellow jersey. The American finished fourth at the ski station of Piau-Engaly, where he lost two minutes 10 seconds to the day's winner, Fernando Escartin.

                           The Spaniard's win saw him move to second place overall. In the most interesting day since the race began more than two weeks ago, Armstrong faced attacks from every quarter.

                           He never showed any weakness until the last 200 yards of the 108 miles from St Gaudens, when Alex Zülle and Richard Virenque rode away from him to finish second and third.

                           Armstrong leads Escartin by 6min 19sec, having started the day 7-44 ahead of another Spaniard, Abraham Olano. Yesterday Olano, the world time trial champion, trailed in more than seven minutes behind. He also crashed on the descent of the Col de Val Louron but by then he had lost contact with the leaders.

                           It was a day when the climbers tried to break Armstrong and though Escartin, who was lying fourth in the Tour last year when he withdrew with all Spanish riders in protest over the police investigations into drugs allegations, led for the last 25 miles, he did gain enough time overall.

                           Armstrong said: "I didn't think Escartin would get so much time. He was going fantastic today, riding like an animal."

                           This 15th stage was always viewed as the hardest of the race, crossing five mountains before the uphill finishing climb to the ski station, which was hosting the Tour for the first time.

                           Armstrong was placed under attack from the start of the climb of the Col de Mente, where Zülle (third overall) sent his Spanish Banesto team on the offensive. At the top, where Italian Alberto Elli was first over, Armstrong was in a small group a minute behind.

                           After this climb, the race passed into Spain for 12 miles before climbing back into France over the Col du Portillon. The six leaders had been caught by Belgian Kurt van de Wouwer, who was first over the top, but Armstrong was still with the favourites, 2min 30sec behind.

                           After racing through Luchon, Armstrong had no answer when the little Swiss rider Laurent Dufaux (fourth overall) attacked. Only Escartin, and another Spaniard, Francisco Garcia, could follow.

                           Elli was still ahead over the top but now he had Escartin and Dufaux alongside him.  Armstrong was a little under two minutes back in a group that was shrinking with every pedal turn.

                           Only one climb remained before the road up to the finish and Escartin could contain himself no longer as he made a lone dash for victory and an attempt to gain as much time as he could over Armstrong.

                           By the top of the climb he was 71 seconds ahead of Dufaux while Armstrong was containing Escartin's escape, going over the top 2min 52sec later. He had started the day with 8-53 in hand over the Spaniard.

                           As the last climb began to bite, Armstrong seemed to have found his second wind and, on the advice of his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, attacked his group and started to gain ground rapidly, catching everyone else ahead on the climb except Escartin.

                           "That was a mistake which I paid for in the end," said Armstrong after Virenque and Zülle, who caught him back, left him in the sprint for the line.  Virenque, who was pleased to have made the podium, said he was still thinking in terms of an overall win.

                           The field was reduced to 147 from the original 180 when Australian Jay Sweet and Frenchman Damien Nazon were eliminated, finishing outside the limit which was based on 12 per cent of the winner's time yesterday.

                           Sweet, who has been last man for a week and riding his first Tour, was bitterly disappointed after reaching the line four minutes outside the deadline.

                           In contrast, Frenchman Thierry Loder was delighted after he beat the deadline by just 22 seconds to be able to start again this morning.

                           Yesterday's details

                           15th STAGE (St Gaudens to Piau-Engaly, 108 miles, 173km).- 1, F Escartin (Spain, Kelme) 5hr 19min 49sec; 2, A Zülle (Switzerland, Banesto) at 2min 1sec; 3, R Virenque (France, Polti) same; 4, L Armstrong (US, US Postal) 2-10; 5, K van de Wouwer (Belgium, Lotto) 2-37. 6, A Casero (Spain, Vitalicio Seguros) same; 7, D Nardello (Italy, Mapei 2-45); 8, L Dufaux (Switzerland, Saeco) same; 9, F Garcia (Spain, Vitalicio Seguros) 3-39; 10, W Belli (Italy, Festina) 4-00. 11, M Beltran (Spain, Banesto) 5-03; 12, A Elli (Italy, Telekom) 6-07; 13, R Meier (Switzerland, Cofidis) 6-26; 14, T Hamilton (US, US Postal); 15, M Lelli (Italy, Cofidis) same. 16, F Mancebo (Spain, Banesto) 6-40; 17, D Etxebarria (Spain, ONCE) 7-01; 18, A Olano (Spain, ONCE); 19, A Peron (Italy, ONCE) both same; 20, A Galdeano (Spain, Vitalicio Seguros) 8-09. GB: 114, C Boardman (Credit Agricole) 36-48.

                           OVERALL: 1, Armstrong 72hrs 45min 27sec; 2, Escartin at 6-19; 3, Zülle 7-26; 4, Dufaux 8-36; 5, Virenque 9-46; 6, Nardello 11-33; 7, Casero 11-40; 8, Olano 12-35; 9, Belli 15-16; 10, Van de Wouwer 16-41; 11, Peron 18-23; 12, P Tonkov (Russia, Mapei) 19-24; 13, Etxebarria 20-10; 14, B Salmon (France, Casino) 21-01; 15, Beltran 21-22; 16, Meier 21-43; 17, C Moreau (France, Festina) 21-59; 18, S Heulot (France, La Française de Jeux) 22-21. 130, Boardman 2hr 18min 18sec.

                           KING OF THE MOUNTAINS.- 1, Virenque 237pts; 2, M Piccoli (Italy, Lampre) 168; 3, Armstrong 159; 4, Escartin 150; 5, Elli 130.

                           POINTS: 1, E Zabel (Germany, Telekom) 240pts; 2, S O'Grady (Australia, Credit Agricole) 230; 3, C Capelle (France, Big Mat) 158; 4, F Simon (France, Credit Agricole) 140; 5, G Hincapie (US, US Postal) 139.

                           TEAMS: 1, Banesto 218hr 37min 7sec; 2, ONCE at 6-27; 3, Festina 11-04; 4, Mapei 11-18; 5, Kelme 13-44.