Cycling: Lillywhite forced to scramble: Banana call all hands to help their beleaguered race leader

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The Independent Online
CHRIS LILLYWHITE spent more than five hours in the hot seat yesterday in a Milk Race which is developing into the closest fought since 1977.

In the Peak District, Lillywhite saw his race lead temporarily vanishing over the horizon in the person of Daniel Kovar, a Czech who until yesterday was not even considered a threat. But it all came right in the end as Rotherham turned out to see Lillywhite salvage his yellow jersey in a hard chase on the finishing circuit.

Keith Lambert, the Banana team manager, had to call Ben Luckwell back from Kovar's leading group to help Lillywhite's pursuit of Kovar.

Yet the Irish and their leading man, Conor Henry, last year's winner, accused the Banana team of 'negative tactics'. 'They do not deserve to win. I hope the Czechs can do it,' Alasdair MacLennan, the Irish manager, said. 'It was one of the most uninspiring days I have seen on a stage race for a long time.'

The tactics may have seemed negative, but there was plenty of excitement throughout the 120 miles. There was Mark McKay, the British amateur, challenging for the King of the Mountains jersey, and only being robbed of it by mechanical trouble that meant a lone chase over the daunting Holme Moss to regain the leaders.

Then he had enough left to make Mark Walsham sprint even harder for a stage victory for Banana. 'I was resigned to Walsham getting the victory because he had sat in for the last 30 miles,' McKay said. Walsham was not so sure. 'I was worried whether I had anything left. It has been a long day at the front,' he said.

How much stress can Lillywhite take? He survived Tuesday's stage to regain the yellow jersey of leader when all seemed lost, and last week had to be rescued after a puncture. A crash cost his team the services of Keith Reynolds, and reduced the efficiency of Shane Sutton.

Lillywhite retook the leader's colours on Tuesday, but with three teammates more than 28 minutes in arrears, the Bananas lost their lead in the team race. 'That was some scare,' Lambert said as the inquests began. 'We had to stop to do our own time check, and it was then that I told Luckwell to drop back and help out.'

With only five of their original six men still in the race, nothing is going to be easy for Banana as seven men are in a queue of challengers all within 51 seconds of Lillywhite.

MILK RACE Stage 9 (Wrexham to Rotherham, 120 miles): 1 M Walsham (GB, Banana) 5hr 4min 52sec; 2 M McKay (GB Amateur); 3 J Pettersen (Norway); 4 A Kivilev (Kazakhstan); 5 D Kovar (Czech Republic); 6 S Farrell (GB Amateur) all same time; 7 A Nadobenko (Kazakhstan) +2min 43sec; 8 G Rice (Australia); 9 K Marcussen (Denmark); 10 M van Steen (Netherlands) all s/t. Stage team: 1 GB Amateur 15hr 17min 08sec; 2 Banana +2min 35sec; 3= Kazakhstan, Norway +2:45.

Overall: 1 C Lillywhite (GB, Banana) 33hr 59min 10sec; 2 Kovar +25sec; 3 Kivilev +30; 4 B Smith (GB, Banana) +38; 5 C Henry (Ireland) +41; 6 N Mattan (Belgium) +45; 7 M Rendell (New Zealand) +46; 8 N van der Steen (Netherlands) +48; 9 O Simensen (Norway) +51; 10 M Stephens (GB Amateur) +1min 13sec. Team overall: 1 Norway 101hr 44min 07sec; 2 Denmark +2min 00sec; 3 GB Amateur +3:17.