Cycling: `Red Train' aids Cipollini charge

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The Independent Online
THE QUEUE of ambition forms behind the lofty Mario Cipollini in the Tour de France as it has done in the Giro d'Italia.

Yesterday he snapped up his 11th Tour win, his second in as many days, with Tom Steels, Belgium's hero for two days, pushing hard to get to the front as the 233 kilometres into Amiens produced another massed charge.

Never underestimate the power of a sprinter. The Italian's record victory at Blois brought a new offer from his coffee-machine sponsors, who had said that they were releasing him at the end of the season.

"It seems the door is not yet closed with Saeco. But I am neither in next year nor out," he said after announcing the previous day that he had become a budget cut.

He is not yet consigned to the dole queue, but his sprint yesterday may be making a few rivals feel redundant.

"It's impossible not to win after your team-mates have done such good work," he said after foiling his German rival, Erik Zabel.

Zabel's sprinting has earned the green jersey of top points-scorer in the past three Tours. That is the "yellow jersey" as far as the fast finishers are concerned, but Cipollini does not hang around until the Champs-Elysees.

He is never happy in the Alps, Pyrenees, or Dolomites and Appenines of the Giro. Only once did he stay to the bitter end of a Giro, and that was to help Ivan Gotti to his first of two overall victories.

Two seconds, a third, a fourth and a fifth are Zabel's statistics on this Tour, and he will again be hunting for a breakthrough as today's stage is destined for another sprint finish.

"I made my move at Amiens when I saw Zabel trying on the other side of the road," said Cipollini, whose victory lifted him to fifth overall, 32 seconds behind Jaan Kirsipuu, the Tour leader for five days.

Cipollini is 32 and has been on the scene since 1989 as a professional, piling up more than 140 victories. He remembers his first sprinting triumph. "That was when I was six. I beat my brother."

He has had a longer shelf-life than most sprinters. Zabel is 29, Steels is 28, and Kirsipuu, the first Estonian to win a Tour stage and wear the yellow jersey, is nearly 31.

Jostling in the queue are the new generation - among them are the Australians Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen.

Both are 25, and hungry. "I am giving it everything I have got," O'Grady said. Last year he marked his debut with three days in the yellow jersey, and that only fired his ambitions.

"I am much more confident this year. I just hope that one day I can pull off a win, but I don't have the explosiveness of Steels. When he starts to sprint he opens a gap on me.

"When I do get my sprint wound up I seem to be moving really fast. Maybe one day if I get the right run and those guys start their sprint a bit early it could be my chance.

"I have to make sure that I don't get trapped close to the spectator barriers, or that someone doesn't hook me."

A sprinter's life is always one step from disaster with 30 or so men each believing that he is going to win and speeding at close on 70kph towards the white line. Most have scars to prove it, including those of Cipollini's calibre.

Others suffer for hours to snatch a little glory. The Frenchman Jacky Durand, noted for his vainglorious solos, encouraged his Belgian team- mate Thierry Marichal to join his attack four kilometres from the Bonneval start yesterday.

Eight others joined them and, 180 kilometres further down the long, flat road to Amiens, Marichal was still among the leaders.

Eventually it came down to a lone towering Swede, Magnus Backstedt, a team-mate of Chris Boardman, resisting until six kilometres remained. Then the loftier ambitions of Cipollini took over, and his "Red Train", as he calls his hard-riding team, steamed into Amiens.


FIFTH STAGE (Bonneval to Amiens, 233.5km): 1 M Cipollini (It) Saeco 5hr 36min 28sec; 2 T Steels (Bel) Mapei; 3 J Kirsipuu (Est) Casino; 4 R McEwen (Aus) Rabobank; 5 E Zabel (Ger) Telekom; 6 S O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole; 7 N Minali (It) Cantina; 8 C Capelle (Fr) Big Mat; 9 D Nazon (Fr) Francaise de Jeux; 10 J Svorada (Sloven) Lampre; 11 J Casper (Fr) Francaise Des Jeux; 12 C Moreau (Fr) Festina; 13 P Padrnos (Cz Rep) Lampre; 14 D Etxebarria (Sp) ONCE; 15 G Hincapie (US) US Postal; 16 S Martinello (It) Polti; 17 S Hinault (Fr) Credit Agricole; 18 F De Waele (Bel) Lotto; 19 L Michaelsen (Den) Francaise des Jeux; 20 S Barthe (Fr) Casino all same time. Selected: 32 A Olano (Sp) ONCE; 44 B Julich (US) Cofidis; 57 M Boogerd (Neth) Rabobank; 74 R Virenque (Fr) Polti; 103 P Tonkov (Rus) Mapei; 124 C Boardman (GB) Credit Agricole all s/t.

OVERALL: 1 Kirsipuu 22hr 47min; 2 Steels +17sec; 3 O'Grady +24; 4 L Armstrong (US) US Postal +32; 5 Cipollini +32; 6 Zabel +40; 7 Olano +43; 8 Hincapie +46; 9 Moreau +47; 10 A Vinokourov (Kazak) Casino +53; 11 S Gonzalez (Sp) ONCE +53; 12 A Peron (It) ONCE +55; 13 C Vandevelde (US) US Postal +55; 14 L Dufaux (Swit) Saeco 55; 15 A Casero (Sp) Vitalico Seguros +58; 16 P Tonkov (Rus) Mapei +1min 0sec; 17 F Simon (Fr) Credit Agricole; 18 J Voigt (Ger) Credit Agricole; 19 Julich all s/t; 20 A Gonzalez Galdeano (Sp) Vitalico Seguros +1:01. Selected: 54 Virenque +1:23; 108 Boogerd +7:37; 126 Boardman +16:04.