Cycling: Indurain overpowers the pretenders

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MIGUEL INDURAIN silenced the pretenders to his Tour de France throne with a 49kph (nearly 31mph) performance on the country roads of the Vendee yesterday to take the yellow jersey on the opening day of the three-week race. The Basque rider, who is chasing a Tour hat-trick, covered the 6.8km course at Le Puy-du- Fou in 8min 12.6sec to beat Switzerland's Alex Zulle by eight seconds.

It was a repeat of the 1992 time- trial opener in San Sebastian. Indurain, then on home territory, was two seconds faster, and a day later Zulle, on his Tour debut, took the yellow jersey from him.

Zulle's team, ONCE, decided to take the fight to Indurain this time and planned to mount Zulle and the Dutchman Erik Breukink - their against-the-clock specialists - on a road version of the Lotus bike that last summer gave Britain its first Olympic cycling gold for 72 years.

Rudy Thomann, the senior development engineer for the British Formula One car designers, was convinced they were on a winner. 'We can make a big bang just like the Olympics,' he said. 'This bike has been aerodynamically improved and could save three seconds per kilometre.'

The anticipated big bang became a whimper yesterday as Breukink was the 13th fastest, 26 seconds slower than Indurain, who confirmed the time-trial form that has been the key to his previous Tour victories.

Zulle's chance of proving the new bike was wrecked on Friday when the only other Lotus machine was in collision with a car as Breukink was training. The Dutchman escaped with grazes but the bike had a broken fork.

An over-confident Zulle told Breukink to use the remaining Lotus. 'I can win this time trial on a tricycle,' he said, but he underestimated the tough farmer's son from Villava. The result also showed that it takes more than a state-of-the-art machine to be No 1.

Gianni Bugno, third and second in the past two Tours, was third, 11 seconds behind Indurain, and another Italian, Claudio Chiappucci, despite his time-trialling weakness, was eighth, 20 seconds in arrears.

They are rated as the main challengers to Indurain as the Tour progresses, particularly in the mountains of the second half where Chiappucci, always audacious, will be a major threat.

'I was not trying to strike a psychological blow but just to ride a good time trial,' Indurain said. 'The margin was bigger than I expected. I started cautiously but then on the climb I gave everything. If we can keep the yellow jersey we will, but without endangering our chances for the rest of the race. There are several teams with something to prove.'

Indurain's policy is to break his rivals in the time trials - there are two longer ones to come during the 3,700km race - and then defend vigilantly with the aid of his Banesto team in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

The Spaniard's next major attack will come in 10 days with a time trial at Lake Madine, near Verdun. The next move 48 hours later will be down to Chiappucci as they take on the Alps where last year the Italian produced a solo spurt that left Indurain temporarily five minutes in arrears. Chiappucci won the stage on home soil at Sestriere, but it was also the day that Indurain took back the race lead and held it all the way to Paris.

There were disappointing rides for two former Tour champions. Laurent Fignon, of France was 67th, 43 seconds down, and Spain's Pedro Delgado was 118th, 56 seconds behind.

TOUR DE FRANCE PROLOGUE (Le Puy-du- Fou, 6.8km individual time trial): 1 M Indurain (Sp) Banesto 8min 12sec; 2 A Zulle (Swit) Once +8sec; 3 G Bugno (It) Gatorade +11; 4 T Marie (Fr) Festina +13; 5 T Rominger (Swit) Clas +14; 6 R Sorensen (Den) Carrera +18; 7 R Alcala (Mex) Wordperfect s/t; 8 C Chiappucci (It) Carrera +20; 9 L Jalabert (Fr) Once +23; 10 S Roche (Irl) Carrera +24; 11 V Ekimov (Rus) Novemail +25; 12 J Bruyneel (Bel) Once +26; 13 E Breukink (Neth) Once s/t; 14 Z Jaskula (Pol) GB-MG +27; 15 B Boscardin (It) Gatorade +28; 16 J Nijdam (Neth) Wordperfect s/t; 17 D Arnould (Fr) Castorama s/t; 18 J-F Bernard (Fr) Banesto +29; 19 A Elli (It) Ariostea s/t; 20 A Peron (It) Gatorade s/t. GB: 140 R Millar, TVM, +1min 01sec; 147 S Yates, Motorola, +1:03.