Battle begins in hall of the mountain kings

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with the Tour de France

According to Richard Virenque, the Tour de France begins today. The Frenchman arrived at Le Grand Bornand in the Alps yesterday and unpacked his red polka dot King of the Mountains jersey in readiness for the opening round between the Tour flyweights.

The 170 riders flew into Geneva, passing high above the mountain where today the first serious blows will be struck after a week of sparring through Brittany, Normandy and Belgium.

Heavyweights such as the Tour leader, Miguel Indurain, weighing in at 79kg (12st 4lb), will use strength and tactics to ensure that the livelier lightweights do not usurp them.

The Italian Marco Pantani, who weighs a mere 56kg, represents the kind of danger Indurain set out to lessen in Sunday's time trial. "I wanted to open big time gaps on the climbers because I know that I will be attacked a lot in the mountains," Indurain said.

Pantani is 11 and a half minutes behind Indurain, who leads the 72 Danish kilos of Bjarne Riis by 23 seconds. For Riis, who finished fifth overall in 1993, this is a renaissance.

Always capable of winning stages in the tours of France and Italy, the 31-year-old found new heights of form on Sunday that came close to toppling Indurain. Because he did not receive any time checks on Indurain, the Dane did not realise that in the closing stages he was faster than the Spaniard.

Tony Rominger started as the biggest threat to Indurain, and might still be, as Riis's weight may prevent his driving Indurain harder as they climb. The Swiss rider is carrying only 64kg plus the kind of reputation that could unsettle the normally imperturbable Indurain. As the first Swiss King of the Mountains, Rominger took two Alpine stages and then beat Indurain at his speciality, the time trial. That was two years ago, though, and Rominger has yet to hit that peak again. He trails Indurain by 2min 32sec, 12 seconds behind the serious contender for yellow, the Russian Evgeny Berzin (65kg), riding in his first Tour.

Rominger and Berzin both aspire to the yellow jersey but Virenque, of similar build, is prepared to settle for the colours he already holds. It is the fight among the lighter riders that the heavies have to contain.

The hard times start today. The Savoy Alps offers the 1,040 metres Col des Saisies, the 1,605m Col du Meraillet, 1,968m Cormet de Roselend, and to finish, a climb of nearly 20km to La Plagne, which stands at 1,980m. It was here in 1987 that the Irishman, Stephen Roche, had to have oxygen after pushing himself to the limit.

No one underestimates the mountains. Eugene Christophe (the first man to wear a yellow jersey, in 1919), won three Alpine stages in 1912, one with a solo run of 315km. Next year, in the Pyrenees, he was forced to walk 14km from the top of the Tourmalet to a smithy to repair his broken forks. A plaque on the forge wall commemorates the event.

Tomorrow takes the field to the notorious L'Alpe d'Huez, with its serpent- like trail to the finish at 1,860m. A ski resort, it is also the shrine of the Tour's mountaineers, and fans in their thousands make the pilgrimage to pack its 20km ascent.

When the American, Andy Hampsten, won there in 1992 he rated it "better than a world title." Six years before that, Greg LeMond and his team-mate Bernard Hinault, who compiled eight Tour victories between them, crossed the L'Alpe d'Huez finish side by side after annihilating the opposition. This year's annihilation begins today.