Cycling: Cipollini rides history train

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THE FIRST phase of the Tour finished at the end of the Maginot Line in Thionville yesterday with a fourth successive victory for the remarkable Mario Cipollini. Not since Charles Pelissier in 1930 has a rider won four stages in a row.

Like the day before, when Tom Steels was disqualified, the win was blessed with a touch of good fortune. Erik Zabel had hauled himself back into the sprint after a mid-race fall only for his foot to slip out of its cleat within 25 metres of the finishing line. Whether the German would have won is open to doubt, but no one could begrudge Cipollini his moment of history. With his 13th stage win, the charismatic sprinter has now overtaken Gino Bartali as the most successful Italian rider in the Tour de France, a sweet response to the critics who had written him off earlier in the week.

When his despair has eased, Zabel will realise that his fate could have been much more painful. Thoughts returned to a crash in the sprint finish at Armentieres five years ago which in effect ended the career of the Belgian Wilfred Nelissen. Zabel, his feet splayed like a child riding for the first time without stabilisers, performed miracles to keep his bike balanced at a speed approaching 55kph.

Today, the Tour reaches a decisive stage with a 56km time trial round Metz, the capital of Lorraine; by the time the leaders reach the summit of L'Alpe d'Huez on Wednesday evening after the second of the two Alpine stages, the patterns of the race will be more clearly defined. A return to the peloton beckons for Jaan Kirsipuu, holder of the yellow jersey for the past five days, a return to his home in Tuscany for Cipollini. It is time for Bobby Julich, Lance Armstrong and Abraham Olano, among others, to fulfil the Tour's search for a worthy new champion. All of the main contenders stayed well hidden yesterday on the sort of stage ideal for some unheralded heroics.

The riders had barely engaged a gear before Lylian Lebreton, a 27-year- old from Nantes riding for the BigMat-Auber team, sent journalists rushing to their handbooks and team chiefs scanning through their notes. The French love a spectacular dash for freedom and when Lebreton was joined in his chase by the familiar piratical figure of Jacky Durand, it seemed one for the connoisseurs of the long-distance break. The terrain through the Ardennes, down the Meuse and the Moselle, was undulating enough to discourage the sprint teams from chasing, long and tough enough to favour the rouleurs, those riders who are not quite quick enough for the sprints and not quite light enough for the climbs. As neither rider threatened the overall lead, the peloton's reluctance to chase was understandable.

For 198km of the 227km stage Lebreton forged his way towards the finish in Thionville. Durand's chase was no less memorable. Starting seven minutes behind his countryman, the leader of the Mobistar-Lotto team slowly reeled in the leader until the duo joined forces at 170km. At one time, Lebreton stretched his lead to nearly 11 minutes, but once the red train of the Saeco team had been ordered to prepare the path to history for Cipollini, there was a sense of inevitability about the finale. The break ended a tantalising 4km from glory as the sprint teams gathered for one final charge. "I feel the same as if I had won the Tour," Cipollini said. With the first nervous week completed, and no sign of dirty washing on the Maginot Line, the Tour organisers might believe Cipollini is not the only victor so far.