CYCLING: French fear win by local hero

Cycling: Virenque victory would embarrass Tour organisers but repeat of last year's debacle is a greater threat
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A FRENCHMAN is one of the clear favourites to win the 1999 Tour de France, which starts today with a prologue time trial at Le Puy du Fou in the Vendee.

The prospect, however, of a first home winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 is one that the race organisers contemplate with dread. "It would be the worst thing that could happen to cycling, and it would be a setback for other riders," Jean-Marie Leblanc, the director of the Tour, said yesterday.

Leblanc was speaking as the rider in question, Richard Virenque, was leaving Le Puy du Fou after attending the medical testing which all riders undergo before the race. The timing was significant, because Virenque's presence here is a harsh reminder - as if one were needed - of the drugs scandal that all but ruined last year's race and has dogged the sport ever since.

Virenque and his Festina team-mates were removed from the race last year for their involvement in the doping scandal. Virenque still faces possible criminal charges over the affair and is competing here - with his new team, Polti - against the wishes of the Tour organisers, who were ordered by the International Cycling Union (UCI) to reinstate him on a technicality.

Victory for Virenque in three weeks would be no surprise. Past Tour showings put the Frenchman at the top of the contenders list with a second and a third overall, stage victories and four years as the winner of the red polka dot jersey of best climber.

If a Virenque win would be an embarrassment, a repeat of last year's chaos would be an even greater threat to the Tour. Leblanc has asked the police for a truce from last year's raids and arrests. "I have made myself heard, but I have not received any guarantees," he said.

However, his hopes must have dropped with the news that a Polti team car was stopped by French customs officers on Thursday on the road between Paris and Nantes, although nothing was seized.

Leblanc has given the riders two rest days and lessened the severity of the mountain stages, but the American Bobby Julich, one of the favourites, anticipates a big fight for the podium. "Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich may not be here, but their absence is going to make it harder because everyone who thinks he has a chance will be trying," said the Texan, a surprise third overall last year.

"My place on the podium did a lot for American cycling as Greg LeMond's victories did for my generation 10 years ago. For this year I have to discover how fit I am, because I have had an allergy. The Tour changes a rider and that's what I am now - a Tour rider. It is a special race in which I have to do well."

Julich shared the Paris podium with Pantani and Ullrich, but ranged against his plans to climb higher are Michael Boogerd (Netherlands), Abraham Olano (Spain), Pavel Tonkov (Russia), and Alex Zulle (Switzerland) to name but a few.

Today at Le Puy du Fou, it is the time of the speed merchants, who acknowledge Chris Boardman as their king. He has won three Tour prologues in five years, and in the Vendee sky there is no sign of the rain clouds that haunt the Briton each time he seeks another spell in the yellow jersey.

Three times he has led the Tour, but there have been dull days too. It was raining when he lost the opening time trial to Zulle in the 1996 Tour, 12 months after another downfall in the Tour had put Boardman in a Breton hospital. Since his record 55.152kph time trial earned him the leader's jersey on his debut five years ago, he has had his crises, induced usually by crashes: "My bike handling is abysmal in the rain. When you have had some good slides at high speed like I have it doesn't half leave some mental scars."

He ran out of road on a mist-clad mountain in 1997, injured his back and had to quit. Last year he joined the ranks of those who have fallen with the colours when an Irish wall stopped the progress of a rider who has completed only one Tour. "I want to finish this year more so than other years," Boardman said. "When I was the team leader there was real ignominy in having to struggle back into the race."

His ability to recover from the strenuous pace has been in question for some time. "My recovery is reflected in my performances. It's not good." He has, however, refused the temptation to fall back on the forbidden blood-enhancing agent, erythropoietin, which had the Tour in disarray last year. "It's never worth it," he said.

Before the start the riders face their first test. All 180 will have their hamaetocrit levels checked early today. Anyone with a red cell count of 50 per cent will be going home "for his health's sake" as it states on the UCI bulletin.