Armstrong Holds Onto Second in France

Lance Armstrong (search) finished 15th Saturday in the Tour de France's (search) first mountain stage, leaving him second in the overall standings behind stage winner Richard Virenque (search).

Armstrong, trying for a record-tying fifth straight Tour win, finished just over four minutes behind Virenque and achieved one of his main goals: leaving some rivals behind on the punishing mountain stage from Lyon to the Alpine ski resort of Morzine.

Armstrong trailed Virenque by 2 minutes, 37 seconds overall.

The 31-year-old Texan was preparing himself for Sunday's big challenge, the monstrous Col du Galibier (search), which towers 8,728 feet.

"Lance said today was very hard, but we're not worried about the position at the moment. The real test for us is tomorrow, with the Col du Galibier," said Armstrong's spokesman, Jogi Muller. "He's very confident about it."

A grimacing Virenque held on to take Saturday's grueling stage, grabbing the overall leader's yellow jersey and the spotted jersey awarded to the best mountain climber.

"It's magic," said the 33-year-old rider for the Quick Step-Davitamon team. "I dared — today was a day for taking dares."

Virenque broke away with a small group of riders early in the stage and held on, powering over peaks. He raised his arms in victory as he crossed the line at Morzine. Last year, he won the climb up Mont Ventoux, coming back from a doping ban.

Virenque was a member of the Festina team that was kicked out of the 1998 Tour after customs officers found banned drugs in a team car. In the trial that followed, Virenque testified about systematic drug abuse within his team and cycling in general.

His admission of doping led to a seven-month ban that kept him out of the 2001 Tour.

"If I keep the yellow jersey for another one or two days, it will be a bonus," he added. "I can finish my career now without regrets."

Saturday's stage, the first of seven in the mountains, was the longest of the Tour's 20 stages at 142.9 miles. It included an 8.9-mile climb up the 5,342-foot Col de la Ramaz.

"It was a bit of a shock to hit the mountains for the first time," said Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammate George Hincapie. "But I felt good and I think overall the team did pretty OK."

With the temperature reaching 86 degrees, some racers could not take the punishment. Seven dropped out, including Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, the sprint sensation of this Tour who had won four of six relatively flat early stages.

With Armstrong and his teammates forcing the pace up the Ramaz ascent, challengers Gilberto Simoni of Italy and Santiago Botero of Colombia fell behind.

Both lost more than six minutes to Armstrong, with Botero finishing 74th and Simoni 77th.

Other key rivals stayed with Armstrong, including 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich, Spaniards Iban Mayo and Joseba Beloki and American Tyler Hamilton, racing with a broken collarbone, the result of a crash on the second day.

Tens of thousands of people lined the route through the foothills and passes of the Alps, turning the stage into a daylong celebration of cycling.

Fans spray-painted slogans such as "Allez Armstrong!" on the road. Families picnicked along the route, facing snowcapped peaks. Villages had barbecues and parties before the riders came past.

Virenque had long been known as a climber, taking the "King of the Mountains" title at five previous Tours, from 1994-1997 and in 1999. His win Saturday was his sixth Tour stage victory.

This year marks the Tour's centennial, and Virenque said he'd "wanted to do something big" to celebrate it. With a victory in hand, he said wanted to keep the spotted mountain jersey all the way to the finish in Paris.

"I'd aimed to win a stage — that's done," he said. "Now I'll concentrate on the spotted jersey."