Twelve years have passed since Bernard Hinault stood on the Paris podium in the yellow jersey that symbolises victory in the world's greatest race. The French pray for that elusive 37th triumph. Virenque is still their best chance, and he knows it.
"Next year I will be back with even greater hopes," the Casablanca-born rider said after finishing in the top three yesterday for the seventh time in eight stages. "Last year I had a great Tour, and finished third. This year I have improved a place. That's progress."
After eight gruelling days through the Pyrenees and the Alps he has done his utmost to make life uncomfortable for Jan Ullrich, the man in the yellow jersey. He has slugged out each Alpine stage with the German but leaves the mountains behind today with a deficit of 6min 22sec, and the need to be patient for another year.
Ullrich was tucked safely in a group of 21 as Christophe Mengin had his moment of joy, the Frenchman winning the 16th stage into the Swiss town of Fribourg, but five kilometres from the finish Bjarne Riis was in torment. He finished 6:12 after Mengin. "Go to hell," was his only, out of character comment, after a day the 1996 Tour winner will not forget easily.
There were claims that Riis was attending to a call of nature when the Tour took off on the Col de la Croix where Danish supporters were noisily prominent in a "full house". They were not anticipating seeing their man lagging seven minutes off the pace set by Spain's Aitor Garmendia and Stephane Heulot, of France, on the 18km climb, the last severe test of the Tour.
Their escape ended 28 kilometres from the chequered flag, but Riis, who had toiled ceaselessly for his team-mate Ullrich, was losing the battle for third place overall. He also had stomach trouble.
Marco Pantani's second success on Monday had enabled the Italian whippet to unseat Riis from third, but Pantani feared that he might lose it in Saturday's time trial. Riis's struggle yesterday inspired Pantani's Mercatone Uno team-mates and they drove hard to make it even worse for the Dane, who is now more than two minutes away from that coveted place on the Champs Elysees podium.
Ullrich, too, had a crisis on the Col de la Croix. "My legs were not so good but I managed to control the situation," was his explanation for falling back, momentarily, leaving Virenque without his "shadow".
Virenque, assured of the polka dot jersey of best climber for a fourth year, placed third for a third time after three seconds and a victory at Courchevel.
TOUR DE FRANCE 16th stage (113 miles, Morzine-Fribourg): 1 C Mengin (Fr) Francaise des Jeux 4hr 30min 11sec (ave 25.121mph); 2 F Vandenbroucke (Bel) Mapei; 3 R Virenque (Fr) Festina; 4 G Pierobon (It) Batik; 5 L Dufaux (Swit) Festina; 6 F Casagrande (It) Saeco; 7 A Olano (Sp) Banesto; 8 U Bolts (Ger) Telekom; 9 M Pantani (It) Mercatone Uno; 10 O Rodrigues (Por) Banesto; 11 J Ullrich (Ger) Telekom; 12 G Totschnig (Aut) Telekom; 13 F Escartin (Sp) Kelme; 14 S Heulot (Fr) Francaises des Jeux; 15 J-M Jimenez (Sp) Banesto; 16 M Beltran (Sp) Banesto; 17 B Zberg (Swit) Mercatone Uno; 18 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 19 A Casero (Sp) Banesto; 20 R Conti (It) Mercatone Uno all same time. Selected: 39 B Riis (Den) Telekom +6:12. 73 M Sciandri (GB) Francaises des Jeux +21min 55sec; 113 L Jalabert (Fr) Once +21:55. Overall standings: 1 Ullrich 81hr 29min 10sec; 2 Virenque +6:22; 3 Pantani 10:13; 4 Escartin +16:05; 5 Olano +16:40; 6 Casagrande +17:14; 7 Riis +18:07; 8 Jimenez +23:42; 9 Conti +28:20; 10 Dufaux +29:46; 11 B Zberg (Swit) Mercatone Uno +31:39; 12 O Camenzind (Swit) Mapei +36:33; 13 P Luttenberger (Aut) Rabobank +38:16; 14 Beltran +43:15; 15 J-C Robin (Fr) US Postal Service +53:26; 16 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank +55:11; 17 D Nardello (It) Mapei +56:39; 18 C Moreau (Fr) Festina +1:00.37; 19 Heulot +1:00.54; 20 B Julich (US) Cofidis +1:03.45. Selected: 43 Jalabert +1:55:12; 68 Sciandri +2:33.17.
Points standings: 1 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom 288; 2 F Moncassin (Fr) GAN 195; 3 J Blijlevens (Neth) TVM 168; 4 Virenque 149; 5 Ullrich 142; 6 M Traversoni (It) Mercatone Uno 126; 7 N Minali (It) Batik 121; 8 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank 119; 9 F Simon (Fr) GAN 106; 10 Pantani 105. King of the Mountains: 1 Virenque 527pts; 2 Ullrich 324; 3 Casagrande 259; 4 Pantani 250; 5 L Brochard (Fr) Festina 238; 6 Dufaux 194; 7 P Herve (Fr) Festina 158; 8 Riis 139; 9 Escartin 127; 10 Jimenez 116. Teams: 1 Telekom 245hr 16min 18sec; 2 Mercatone Uno +12:21; 3 Festina +21:51; 4 Banesto +26:31; 5 Kelme +1hr 40min 26sec; 6 Mapei +1:49.31; 7 Rabobank +2:38.47; 8 La Francaise des Jeux +3:33.01; 9 Casino +3:42.35; 10 Lotto +3:44.25.Reuse content