Cycling: Berzin's lead melts away in snow

It was a bizarre day of ups and downs in the Tour de France yesterday. First it snowed, then the 189 kilometres into Italy was reduced to 46. The day ended with Bjarne Riis in the yellow jersey and Yevgeny Berzin, the overnight leader, in second place.

The giant Dane rode into the ski resort of Sestriere alone and triumphant after escaping midway through the race on the Col de Montgenevre to wipe out Berzin's advantage of 35 seconds. Berzin lost ground on the long drag to Sestriere and finished 1min 23sec behind.

Riis, third in last year's race, now leads by 40 seconds. His victory was about the only clear-cut event of a day that Jean-Marie Leblanc and his fellow organisers would like to forget.

The original start at Val d'Isere was cancelled before breakfast after overnight reports of snow and strong winds on the highest climb of this Tour, the 2,770 metre Col d'Iseran.

Then, with everything in place to start the race from Lanslebourg at noon, 45km into the original route, similar conditions were reported on the 2,640 metres Col du Galibier. The stage was further reduced, and rescheduled to start at 3pm from Monetier-les-Bains.

The riders rode most of the route in team cars and were led over the Iseran by a snowplough. "I was frustrated by the changes because I had a plan to attack, but when I saw what it was like I realised that we could not have raced on those mountains," Riis said.

Leblanc has handled emergencies in the past, but this was the first occasion that the weather had caused mayhem for him. It was, after all, July. "It was a shame for the climbers," Leblanc said. "But what we had to do was commonsense, and for the safety of the riders."

On the road to the Col du Galibier there was total confusion. A long line of traffic drove up the mountain. Advised that the road was closed, they drove down again until the message reached them that it was open.

On the slopes, frozen spectators gave the thumbs down to the passing vehicles and shouted insults. On the Iseran pass things got nastier as spectators, who had spent a freezing night in their camper vans, threw nails on the road.

The Tour has suffered vicious weather since it started 10 days ago but Miguel Indurain has remained calm even in his weekend of setbacks.

"Riis is dangerous and has a good team. I intend to attack but always intelligently," he said, knowing that he still has 12 days to claw back just over four minutes.

His team director, Eusebio Unzue, was equally positive. "Miguel is recuperating and with the weather due to improve he should find his true form," he said. "There were signs in this stage, because in the final kilometre he recovered 20 seconds."

Indurain particularly wants to make a triumphal entrance into his home town of Pamplona in nine days' time. This will be the biggest test of his impressive reign and could be the revival of a Tour mummified by his stifling talents.

TOUR DE FRANCE Ninth stage (46km, 28.6 miles, Monetier-les-Bains to Sestriere): 1 B Riis (Den) Deutsche Telekom 1hr 10min 44sec; 2 L Leblanc (Fr) Polti +24sec; 3 R Virenque (Fr) Festina +26; 4 T Rominger (Swit) Mapei +28; 5 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto s/t; 6 U Bolts (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +41; 7 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme +42; 8 J Ullrich (Ger) Deutsche Telekom +44; 9 P Luttenberger (Aut) Carrera +46; 10 A Olano (Sp) Mapei +54; 11 L Piepoli (It) Refin; 12 G Guerini (It) Polti both s/t; 13 J Bruyneel (Bel) Rabobank +1min 2sec; 14 Y Berzin (Rus) Gewiss +1:23; 15 M Fernandez Gines (Sp) Mapei +1:30; 16 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina +1:38; 17 M Fincato (It) Roslotto +1:45; 18 P Ugrumov (Lat) Roslotto s/t; 19 O Camenzind (Swit) Panaria +2:07; 20 C Boardman (GB) GAN s/t. GB: 125 M Sciandri Motorola +11:27.

Overall standings: 1 Riis 42hr 51min 13sec; 2 Berzin +40sec; 3 Rominger +53; 4 Olano +56; 5 Ullrich +1min 38sec; 6 Luttenberger +2:38; 7 Virenque +3:39; 8 Indurain +4:38; 9 Escartin +4:49; 10 Dufaux +5:03; 11 Ugrumov +5:27; 12 Leblanc +7:08; 13 A Zulle (Swit) ONCE +8:27; 14 Bolts +8:43; 15 A Garmendia (Sp) ONCE +9:07; 16 Piepoli +10:04; 17 B Hamburger (Den) TVM +10:32; 18 Bruyneel +10:48; 19 F Gines +11:04; 20 V Ekimov (Rus) Rabobank +11:52. GB: 37 Boardman +32:08; 90 Sciandri +57:39.

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