Cycling: Jalabert has Spanish mountain to climb

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LAURENT JALABERT was declared fit to ride in the Tour of Spain by his ONCE-Deutsche Bank team on the eve of the race yesterday. The Frenchman broke a collarbone on the Tour of Castilla-Leon on 1 August but made a remarkable recovery after being rated highly doubtful to compete in the event he won in 1995.

ONCE included Jalabert in their nine-man line-up on Monday but named two reserves in case he failed late fitness tests.

"I have not really thought about whether or not I was going to start," Jalabert admitted. "I have only had two weeks' training and so it's impossible to think that I could win the Tour again. My mission will be just to help the team."

Jalabert admitted that he fears the severity of this year's Tour, which has been billed as the toughest ever: "I am hoping I don't suffer too much and I just want to maintain my form. Do I think I can win some stages? At this moment all I want to do is recover my confidence. However, when I get a taste of the competition and I'm sure of my fitness, then things could change."

Jalabert tipped his team leader, Abraham Olano, as a rider to watch. "He was the winner last year so it's natural he's among the favourites, along with [Alex] Zulle and [Pavel] Tonkov," Jalabert said.

Whoever becomes the Tour leader, however, will no longer wear a yellow jersey, ending a tradition that began in 1935.

"It will now be known as the `golden jersey' and be a much deeper colour," the Tour organiser, Enrique Franco, said. "We are entering a new millennium and it is a good time to change the image of the Tour."

Of the 21 stages that make up the Tour of Spain, it is the gruelling eighth leg that has been catching everybody's attention - a 109-mile leg that ends 5,610 feet above sea level in the mountain pass of Angliru in the Cantabrica mountain chain in northern Spain. The finale is an eight- mile climb with an average gradient that rises at 9.6 per cent.

"Angliru has climbs that I have never seen in any other race. It could be an ally to make things a little more difficult for the likes of Olano, Zulle and Jalabert," Fernando Escartin of the Kelme team said.

The Tour, one of Europe's three major races following the Tour de France in July and Italy's Giro in June, begins with a 3.7-mile time-trial prologue in the south-eastern city of Murcia. There follows a relentless 2,227- mile journey west, north, east and then south to Madrid where the race ends on 26 September.

Among those not competing is the Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong, the US Postal Service rider who made such a remarkable recovery from cancer. The Italian Marco Pantani - reputedly the world's best climber - is also missing.

Pantani, who was expelled from this year's Giro for failing a blood test, had announced he would make his comeback in Spain, but withdrew last month.